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KAPOW! How Comic Books and Faculty Innovators Are Transforming Science Education
Reading comic books in science class used to mean that students weren't paying attention.
But at a conference co-sponsored by AAAS and the National Science Foundation (NSF), Jay Hosler, an assistant professor of biology at Juniata College in Huntington, Penn., showed how he transformed a medium once used only to tell the stories of superheroes and goofy teenagers into a resource engaging students with science.
Over the past several years, Hosler has written and illustrated a series of science-themed comic books on topics including the evolution of the eye, the stages of cell division, and the life cycle of a honey bee.
"Comic books are an example of great innovative education models to reach students who are nervous or not confident in the science classroom," said Hosler, who teaches evolution to both science majors and non-majors. "Many of them take science courses just to fill a distribution requirement . . . but end up taking other science courses throughout their undergraduate experience."
Hosler presented his project during a poster session at the 2008 Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement (CCLI) conference, held 13-15 August in Washington, D.C., which brought together more than 500 stakeholders in a NSF initiative to transform teaching methods on campuses across the country for courses on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
But comic books were only one of the surprising and intriguing resources discussed at the conference to aid undergraduate learning and teaching. Among others: designing robots that can climb stucco walls by studying the feet of geckos (University of California-- Berkeley); exploring geometry by studying angles and perspective in art (Franklin & Marshall College); and increasing comprehension of biological concepts by encouraging students to develop and teach biology curricula in local public schools (Georgetown University).
Since 1999, the NSF Division of Undergraduate Education has distributed grants to colleges and universities through its CCLI program, encouraging them to alter their STEM teaching methods to incorporate innovative models that are having demonstrable impacts on student learning. Last year, NSF provided around $67.5 million dollars supporting 262 new initiatives on 203 different campuses around the country. Currently, there are around 950 active projects.
Through an NSF grant of its own, AAAS organized the first CCLI conference in 2004, which brought together principal investigators along with undergraduates participating in initiatives. Following the success of the 2004 meeting, AAAS was asked to organize the recent meeting, which did not include undergraduates to keep the meeting at a manageable size.
Yolanda George, deputy director of AAAS Education and Human Resources, said that organizing the conferences furthers AAAS's goal of improving STEM education by encouraging the stakeholders in the CCLI initiative to network and share the successes and challenges of curricula innovation.
"Forming innovative STEM curricula frequently requires faculty members to think outside the box as well as collaborate with colleagues within other disciplines," said George. "It is clearly part of AAAS's mission to support programs like CCLI which help explain to young adults why science and technology are relevant to their lives."
During the meeting, the participants, mostly principal investigators with CCLI grants, presented their projects during one of three poster sessions. They also attended small workshops on how to create new learning materials, implement successful educational innovations, assess learning and evaluate innovations, and conduct additional research on STEM teaching and learning.
Linda Slakey, director of the NSF Division of Undergraduate Education, said that the goal of CCLI is to engage students in lasting learning by making every undergraduate classroom experience one of discovery and empowerment. Slakey said educators have more work to do.
"While there are clear examples of excellence in STEM education, we have to learn more about what works and be able to overcome the many institutional barriers to change," she said. "It's a matter of developing student-centered pedagogy and translating teaching into learning."
Slakey added that the goal of CCLI along with other NSF projects is to "create a public that is confident using science for daily life and public policy."
Alan I. Leshner, AAAS CEO and executive publisher of the journal Science, said in an address to the conference that advances in science are coming at an incredible rate and their implications are becoming increasingly embedded in every aspect of daily life.
"You can't be a fully participating citizen in society without at least some knowledge of core scientific and technological concepts," said Leshner, who serves on the National Science Board that oversees the NSF.
Leshner added that developing effective methods of disseminating and implementing the innovative strategies in diverse university environments is just as important as creating the new education models.
Jeanne Narum, director of Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL), an informal alliance to improve undergraduate STEM education supported by the NSF and the W. M. Keck Foundation, said that college and universities are sometimes hesitant to try new educational approaches because the ability of the new models to increase student comprehension is untested or not widely understood. In addition, developing new curricula and materials requires an investment of the institution's time, money, and human resources.
"The status quo always resists change," Narum said during the workshop that she led along with Norman Fortenberry, director of the Center for the Advancement of Scholarship on Engineering Education (CASEE) at the National Academy of Engineering (NAE).
During the workshop, Narum and Fortenberry encouraged the participants to describe the institutional barriers that they encountered when trying to implement their CCLI projects. Common barriers included: the consequences of not succeeding; cultural norms of what teaching should look like; insufficient institutional resources; and a culture of faculty autonomy.
Robert Grossman, a workshop participant and a professor of chemistry at the University of Kentucky, said that faculty members might be able to convince their university's administrators to implement innovative programs by showing that they are in the institution's best interest.
Grossman said that several years ago, his institution discovered that students receiving low or failing grades in chemistry were more likely to withdraw from the course or college as a whole. This is very expensive for the institution, he said.
In an effort to increase student success in chemistry classes, Grossman said that his colleague used a CCLI grant to develop ChemExcel, a peer-led tutoring program for undergraduates in chemistry.
Grossman said that once his colleague demonstrated that a small investment in the tutoring program could reduce the chemistry failure rate, the University of Kentucky eagerly supported the program.
During the poster session, Stacy Gleixner, a professor of chemical and material engineering at San Jose State University in California, said that a critical part of increasing STEM comprehension in undergraduates is enhancing student excitement about the material, especially those majoring outside the course discipline.
At her school, Gleixner teaches a course on material engineering geared towards students majoring in other disciplines including civil, electrical, aerospace, or computing engineering.
For her CCLI project, Gleixner and her collaborators developed resources that present material engineering concepts in the context of familiar technologies. For example, Gleixner said that her students, typically first- or second-year undergraduates, learn about alternative energies by studying fuel cells; sports materials through skis; civil infrastructure through bridges; and data storage through small computer memory devices.
This is sharply different from the traditional method of teaching material engineering to non-material engineering majors: lectures complemented by a fat textbook.
During course evaluations, Gleixner found that both the instructors and students said that the new education model was engaging and offered a better understanding of foundational material engineering principles.
"The biggest thing was that they said that the course was fun to take," she said, adding that many went on to take additional material engineering courses.
Hosler said that compared to traditional thick textbooks used in classrooms, comic books are especially well-suited to help teach science due to their colorful visuals and accessible text and appearance.
In one of his comic books, The Sandwalk Adventures, which received a 2002 Eisner Award nomination for best new comic series, Hosler tells the story of Mara, a follicle mite that inhabits the eyebrow of Charles Darwin. During long hikes on a sand walk, Darwin explains (and Hosler draws) the theory of natural selection to Mara.
Hosler added that comics are an effective tool for teaching science not only because of what is drawn, but also because of what is left blank. Due to the white area between the image panes, also known as the gutter, readers are forced to think about the connection between two adjacent images.
"Comic books depend on the reader's ability to identify a clear sequence of events and how one pane relates to the next one," said Hosler, adding comic books are especially useful for teaching biological processes that rely on sequences like cell division.
Hosler said that engaging non-majors in his science classes is important because many of his students are interested in becoming primary or elementary school teachers. Most of them will develop their own lesson plans, with science vying for equal classroom time with social studies, physical education, art, and history.
"Many of my incoming students are scared out of their minds about science," Hosler said. "And if they are afraid of science, there is no way they could teach it well. We need to show them that they can not only learn about it, but, eventually, teach it to the next generation."
8 September 2008