The National Science Foundation studies whether comics are better for teaching STEM subjects

The National Science Foundation wants to know if comics are better for teaching STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) learn their subjects, and the organization is finding out through a fascinating grant given to Lucas “Luke” Landherr, a Distinguished Teaching Professor with Northeastern University’s College of Engineering.

Dr. Landherr has been using comics in their work for several years, including the long-running “Drawn to Engineering” comic that appears in the peer-reviewed journal Chemical Engineering Education, drawn by one of Dr. Landherr’s former students, Monica Keszler (who is currently studying for a PhD in Germany), as well as the K-12 outreach comic, “The Wide World of Chemical Engineering,” and now we will see if Dr. Landherr’s faith in comics will be expressed in a widespread program.

How will the comics program work?

Dr. Landherr will create a series of comics for a core introductory chemical engineering class that will be taught not only at Northeastern, but also at five other partner institutions, all using the comics as part of the class, and the study will determine whether the grades in the classes that use the comics are better than the classes that do not use the comics.

Dr. Landherr noted, “I’m trying to develop a much larger scale analysis. It’s really fun to make these (comics), but no one wants to do the analysis. There are tons and tons of actual STEM comics that are out there, but no one’s digging into where the potential is (and) what are the best approaches. … There are a lot of questions that remain unanswered. I get to have the fun of making the comics, but I also get to have some potential long-term impact as well.”

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Comics have been used in teaching young children, but they rarely make it to university work, and Dr. Landherr wants to change that, “I think it’s fair to say this is the first real study of its kind on this scale in STEM, especially at the undergraduate level. It is kind of crazy to think about how large publishing is right now in graphic novels for kids, but then when those kids get to college, everything they’ve had for learning or enjoyment, we no longer use.”

What have past students of Landherr’s said about the use of comics in their study?

Keszler, as noted, was a previous student of Dr. Landherr’s, and she explains why she thinks this study is a good idea, “When I’m looking at a textbook, I’m always flipping directly to the pictures. You just want something that you can grasp onto when you’re drowning in new concepts and to have something … like a comic makes it a lot more memorable. When we’re young, we learn things by song, like the alphabet. I think this is a similar concept.”

Helen Koukoulas

Helen Koukoulas, a recent graduate with a bachelor’s and master’s in chemical engineering, explained why the comics were so effective for her, “Engineering is a very technical and science-based field. But it requires a lot of creativity that I feel like was left out of other classes. The basis of engineering is problem-solving. We’re a company’s problem-solvers. To handle those issues that other departments can’t handle requires a lot of creativity and you have to have a mastery of the concepts of engineering. You’re also really hands-on once you’re in the industry and everything gets a lot more visual. Having that impressed upon me and highlighted in professor Landherr’s classes … turned on that creative light in my brain that then became an approach in a lot of the things I was doing.”

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