Indiana math teacher Jim McClain’s been a superhero fan his whole life, and has been using the spandex-clad characters to add excitement to his lesson plans for much of his 30-year career. In 2007, McClain decided to abandon the traditional (and corporate-owned) names for characters of his own creation, giving birth to a world-saving team called the Solution Squad, who proudly put the “M” in STEM.
McClain’s characters will soon be available to a wider audience, as a 146-page graphic novel detailing the team’s adventures and lessons is now seeking funding on Kickstarter. AiPT! spoke to McClain about how the idea of superheroes teaching mathematical concepts came about, and what kinds of problems the Solution Squad will have to solve.AiPT!: How did you come up with the idea for Solution Squad?
Jim McClain: I was working on worksheets and activities with comic book superhereos — Superman, Batman, the X-Men, Spider-Man, things like that — the Flash, especially, was one of my favorites to go to, because whenever I needed to do any kind of math facts … I would use the Flash as the host … so the kids would know they were intended to work on it fairly quickly. So, I came up with a character, for example, named Abscissa, who runs horizontally along the x-axis at super speed. So I just replaced the Flash with an analog of the Flash, more or less, but the thing is, as I then developed the characters, they took on more personality, and now they’re virtually unrecognizable, except for a few common powers.
Abscissa, for example, has a twin brother named Ordinate, and he was born a little bit after she was, and he flies, and he dives, so when you put them together, you have Abscissa and Ordinate, the Ordered Pair … I had a character who could freeze things and a character who could heat things — I combined them into one character called Absolutia. She can raise temperature and she can lower temperature, so I use her for adding integers. Raising temperature is positive integers, and lowering temperature is negative integers. So each Marvel or DC character got composited into Solution Squad characters. And I wanted a little bit more ethnic diversity, and I wanted more females than males, so that got changed, too.
AiPT!: Do the kids respond to it? Do you think it helps them grasp the concepts?
McClain: It definitely does. When they’ve already seen the comic book, and they’ve seen the characters in the context of solving, for example, a prime number puzzle, and they’re introduced to the characters, for example Abscissa and Ordinate, then later, when we start to do graphing, then all of a sudden … when you give them the vocabulary word for the x-coordinate and the vocabulary word for the y-coordinate … they go, “Well, you’ve got characters named after that.” And I say, “Yeah, what a coincidence.” They’re like, “You did that on purpose!” and I’m like, “Yeah, I’m guilty.”
They’ve already figured it out, what they do [and] in what order, [so] when they recognize it’s an actual thing, they’re kind of shocked. They’ll say, “You put a lot of thought into this,” and yeah, I kind of did. So yeah, they do enjoy it. They learn by accident; they don’t even know that they’re learning because they don’t know the vocabulary words in the first place.
AiPT!: So what kind of trickery are you using in the graphic novel? What’s the story like in this one?
McClain: The graphic novel is an expansion of the first 24-page story. It goes into prime factorization in the second story, and we use prime factorization as a metaphor for determining the identity of a mystery villain. Prime factorization is when you break a number down into numbers that only divide by 1 and themselves. And every number has a unique prime factorization, and that prime factorization only belongs to that number. So it’s sort of like DNA testing. If you check someone’s DNA, you’re going to figure out who the person is … So we went from identifying prime numbers in the first adventure, to using prime numbers to identify a villain in the second adventure.
We have another one about bullying, and at that same time we’re talking about … Fahrenheit-to-Celsius conversion, and then in another story, we have proportions with a villain — the Confectioneer, who is a candy-based villain — she gets her powers from chemical concoctions that are simulating candies. The team stalls for time when they’re defeated by her by talking about the sugar content in, for example, soda, and they’re solving proportions.Yes, the Solution Squad travels via “The Coordinate Plane.”
And then there’s another story, and this is my personal favorite — it’s called “The Case of the 8-Inch Action Figures.” The team tries to get action figures for all the kids in their home city, Crescent City, Louisiana, for the holidays … and Radical starts talking about when he was young — now, Radical, if you don’t know, is a time-traveler from 1984. Now, he was born in 1968 … but he’s still only 17 because he traveled through time to get here. He’s reminiscing about playing with 8-inch Mego figures back in the ’70s, and they decide to go with that. They make 8-inch figures that have clothes and everything, so that everyone will have a quality toy of the Solution Squad for the holidays.
Well, the prototypes come back to their headquarters — it’s a floating headquarters call the SohCahToa — and they’re all the same size. For the people who haven’t seen the Ordered Pair, Abscissa is 5’0″, and her twin brother, Ordinate, is 6’8″. So they should not have the same 8-inch action figure representing both of them. So what they have to do is figure out the actual size of what the action figure should be using math, and then they have a captured weapon called the Scalar Beam, which can grow and shrink things, but they have to program it with the actual heights they want things to be. So they do that just in time for the holidays, and everybody gets their action figures and everybody lives happily ever after.
There are five stories in the graphic novel to do with just the Solution Squad. At the end of the book, there’s another story called “Factor Five,” featuring elementary-age characters who are essentially the Solution Squad fan club. They happen to have powers of their own, but they’re in elementary school. They’re not supposed to go into action, but they decide to go into action anyway, in typical comic book fashion.
AiPT!: You’ve got some interesting pledge levels, Kickstarter rewards.
McClain: [laughs] Yeah.
AiPT!: Well first, let’s go with the easy stuff. It makes sense, of course, since you’re using this in your own classroom, that one of the pledge levels includes ways for other teachers to use this in their own classrooms.
McClain: Absolutely. There are lesson plans for every single story in the book, and then some … There are, I don’t know, three or four hundred pages worth of activities and comics. And I should point out that in the lesson plan package, at the Mastermind level or any of the “Plus” levels — it’s not just lesson plans. You also get the regular comic in normal PDF format, so if you read it on a tablet, it looks just like the graphic novel, but it also has versions of the stories that are told in landscape format, so teachers can project them on their smartboards or their dry erase boards … and then, as you advance each screen, it fills the screen horizontally rather than vertically.Solution Squad leggings, as modeled by one of the book’s artists, Serena Guerra.
AiPT!: And then of course, there’s the leggings.
McClain: Yeah, which was quite shocking to me, because I’ve been doing Solution Squad stuff for four years now. The comic book came out in 2013, and I’ve been making Solution Squad stuff through zazzle.com. I’ve made coffee mugs, air fresheners, can koozies, you name it — I’ve made some kind of knick-knack or doodad with the Solution Squad logo and pictures on it.
One day, just for fun, I said, “Leggings are for real?!” and so I threw down a tessellation pattern that I used on one of my coffee cups and put them on leggings, and next thing you know I’ve got 26 responses going, “Oh my God, I need these.” I went, “I was just kidding, but okay.” So yeah, believe it or not, leggings became quite a popular item, and there are going to be quite a few pairs made. I’ll do what I need to do!
Jim McClain’s Solution Squad is completely funded on Kickstarter, but you’ve still got until Sunday, May 7, to get a pair of leggings, or maybe just the book itself. McClain intends to eventually bring a softcover version to the mass market, but the Kickstarter version includes a 10-page exclusive story, as well as pin-ups by renowned artists such as Ryan Ottley, George Pérez, Carlo Barberi, Josh Buchanan, Gene Ha and Josef Rubinstein.