This U of A expert writes comics to teach kids chemistry | Subscriber

After seeing inequities in science education throughout her 25-year teaching career, an AU chemistry instructor is taking a new approach to solving the problem:

She writes comics to help children better understand the fundamentals of chemistry and to reframe the field as something accessible to everyone.

About half of students who begin by majoring in science, technology, engineering, or math — commonly referred to as STEM — don’t complete these degrees. And compared to their white, Asian, and male peers, attrition rates for black, Latino, Native American, and female STEM majors are disproportionately high.

“If you don’t go through organic chemistry, you’re thwarted from all the highest paying careers. It costs (underrepresented students) a few million dollars in salary a year,” said Colleen Kelley, a professor at the University of Arizona who runs the organic chemistry teaching labs that hundreds of majors STEM must follow each year.

“It’s a civil rights issue,” she said.

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A study 2020 in the peer-reviewed journal Scientists progress found that students from all backgrounds enter college with the intention of majoring in a STEM field at the same pace. But the poor performance of underrepresented minorities relative to their abilities in required general chemistry courses has contributed to their particularly high attrition rates in STEM majors.

And this underrepresentation in higher education spills over into the STEM workforce, which includes many jobs with high earning potential. Despite some gains for women in recent years, these jobs remain dominated by white and Asian men.

Powerful Solutions to Global Challenges

Kelley previously taught high school and college chemistry, but began her career at Northern Arizona University. It was there that she was confronted for the first time with the apprehension of students in the face of learning organic chemistry.

At first, she expected each student to share her enthusiasm for a field that she likens to solving a mystery capable of providing powerful solutions to a wide range of global challenges, such as the development of life-saving drugs or the production of drinking water.

A panel from the comic strip, “The MC Detective Agency: Chemical Solutions Required”, written by Colleen Kelley and illustrated by Mackenzie Reagan.

Courtesy of Colleen Kelley

Instead, Kelley said she walked into the classroom and “they looked at me like I was Darth Vader’s wife.” They were great students, but they were so frustrated.

This is because “all the tools they used before organic chemistry were based on mathematics. Even if they didn’t understand anything about chemistry, they could ‘the math to navigate it,'” Kelley said.

“Then they got to organic chemistry, which is just symbols and no numbers, and they have no tools and they’re frustrated because they’ve never learned how to solve puzzles like this , much less to be noted on it.”

Teach through storytelling

Desperate to help her students understand the fundamentals of chemistry, Kelley turned to storytelling and referenced well-known characters from the Winnie the Pooh series to get the message across.

“I would tell students that Fluorine is a lot like Piglet and clings to molecules, holds on tight and doesn’t like to be left alone and is scared and tiny,” she said. “When I told these stories, I knew they developed the mental imagery and imagination needed to see ‘how chemistry works.

The stories were so effective that she kept telling them when she started teaching at the Gregory School in Tucson, where she worked before coming to UA in 2018. The students responded so well to the stories that she finally started writing them.

The stories started out as simple sketches, but a few years ago she had the idea of ​​creating her own original 10-book comic series titled MC Detective Agency: Chemical Solutions Requiredwhich involves characters who embody different chemical elements.

In the long term, she’d like to develop her ideas into an animated series — think 1990s TV show Magic School Bus — because she thinks a show would have the best chance of reaching a large school audience, which relies on a tightly controlled system. study programme.

For now though, Kelley is focused on making his comics. Although they can benefit learners from 8 to 108 years old, they are intended for elementary school students.

“Everyone is trying so hard to address (the inequalities in STEM education), but we can’t fix it unless we go back to fourth grade,” she said, noting that kids need to learn with chemistry early on so they won’t be intimidated and confused when they get to high school and college.

Students from all communities, especially those who are underrepresented in STEM fields, need to feel included in those fields as well, she said. And that means viewing storytelling as “at least one approach worth trying.”

“Making a Lego figure be African American might make people feel good, but it won’t solve that problem,” Kelley said. “This problem is really about understanding the symbols and being about to translate them.”

Publisher research, funding

Kelley attended writing workshops for children to hone her writing skills and, aside from a few generous donations, funded the project — it takes about $10,000 to produce a book — entirely on her own.

She recently launched her own startup, Kids’ Chemical Solutions, as part of the current cohort of the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps, which helps scientists understand how to amplify the reach of their research.

Kelley is still looking for other forms of funding for the series and she is also looking for a publisher. She said it was a challenge for major publishers to understand the intent behind her work until she developed the comics.

But now that she’s already finished a prototype book, “The Case of Van Gogh’s Disappearance,” she hopes someone will pick it up.

Pilot comic tells how Detectives Poppi and Ray solve the mystery of why, when a band member from ‘The Heavy Metals’ plays a duet with a band member from ‘The Polyatomics’, certain colors reappear in the famous painting by Vincent van Gogh, “Starry Night.”

“Fun and easy to understand”

To bring her vision to life, she enlisted a graphic designer and the artistic eye of former student Mackenzie Reagan to help conceptualize the characters into professional-looking figures.

Reagan, who is now a student at Savannah College of Art and Design, was excited to work as a concept artist on the project, especially because she remembers everything she got from Kelley’s class. in high school.

“Growing up, I always heard that chemistry was the the hardest subject to master in high school,” said Reagan, who describes himself as a “creative, free-thinking type.” “For people like me, it’s an intimidating subject. Colleen’s stories made her so fun and easy to understand. It caught my attention and made me more excited about the class and chemistry in general. I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t love a good story.

A panel from the comic strip, “The MC Detective Agency: Chemical Solutions Required”, written by Colleen Kelley and illustrated by Mackenzie Reagan.

Courtesy of Colleen Kelley

Kelley has already started testing her books with elementary school students across the country.

Last week, she brought a copy to the home of Olivia Pearmain Grant, who is in her third year at Tucson Hebrew Academy. “I like stories. I like it because it was something I had to figure out,” said Olivia, who now has a shower curtain with a large, glowing periodic table decorating her bedroom wall.

“Our education system is set up to discourage women in this field,” Olivia’s mother, Stephanie Pearmain, said.

She exposes her daughter to the way Kelley teaches chemistry through storytelling with the idea that “because of her young age, these concepts will come early in a digestible way.”

This, she hopes, will “remove a lot of the things that come later that prevent children – especially girls – from bending over”.

Wanted: Diverse pool of STEM students

The widespread use of standardized high-stakes exams to measure students’ understanding of STEM subjects is one of the main factors preventing girls and other minorities from gaining the skills and confidence they need to succeed as than STEM majors, said Vicente Talanquer, a chemistry professor. at the AU.

According to Data from the Arizona Department of Education, in 2019, 45% of white students and 51% of Asian students in the Tucson Unified School District passed the math portion of the state AzMERIT test. On the same test, 19% of African American students, 26% of Hispanic or Latino students, and 14% of Native American students passed.

“A lot of research shows that students from certain groups do not do well on these exams, not because they lack the knowledge, but because these exams are not the appropriate tool to explore their understanding,” said Talanquer, who also chairs the chemical education division of the American Chemical Society. In this role, he works with K-12 and college educators as well as industry leaders to improve chemistry teaching and learning.

“It’s very difficult to engage in a topic where you don’t see yourself represented, and when you don’t see people talking about the issues that affect you and your community or see you represented in textbooks,” said said Talanquer. “You are likely to develop the feeling that you don’t belong here.”

From what Talanquer has seen, STEM education is typically done passively, with teachers acting as owners of information.

But using a more hands-on approach — like what Kelley does with his comics, or relying on more project-based learning and contextualizing the material in its real-world applications — will attract a more diverse pool of students from kindergarten to grade 12 and higher education, says Talanquer.

“The way we teach STEM in general tends to put off a significant number of students, and especially underrepresented students in STEM,” he said. “We are losing students because we are unable to show how important and relevant STEM education is in addressing the big challenges facing humanity, from global warming to pollution. But I don’t think students see this, especially in these introductory courses.

Kathryn Palmer covers higher education for the Arizona Daily Star. Contact her by email at or her new phone number, 520-496-9010.

Daniel K. Denny