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Content Literacy: Teaching STEM with Comics at NYCC 2017

Making the complex soluble.

“The real thing to do is inspire kids to want to learn on their own,” said college professor and comics creator Jay Hosler at the “Content Literacy: Teaching STEM with Comics” panel at New York Comic Con 2017. He probably could have wrapped the whole thing up at that point, but Hosler elaborated that a story needs to be engaging to do so, and therefore an author of STEM comics should probably focus on just a few big ideas.

“That, to me, is the big thing,” Hosler said.

Jay Hosler, Joe Flood, Ilya Kowalchuk, Alison Wilgus and Molly Brooks

“Teaching STEM with Comics,” appropriately enough, was moderated by Adam Kullberg, Education Program Manager of Pop Culture Classroom, which makes resources with more relatable material available to teachers. The other creators on the panel echoed Hosler’s emphasis on narrative, with Joe Flood, artist of Science Comics: Dinosaurs, saying his work is more storytelling than nature photography.

“Your students might need to look at the pictures first,” said Ilya Kowalchuk, the Director of Education for Pop Culture Classroom, speaking on the importance of the art. The focus can shift to the text in re-readings, he said, which students should get plenty of chances for.

“I kind of approached it from a place of being terrified of lying to children,” said Molly Brooks, artist of Science Comics: Flying Machines, when Kullberg asked the panel what they thought about when creating for the classroom. Alison Wilgus, the book’s writer, used the term “spectrum of responsibility,” indicating that while those who make a book should try to be as truthful as possible, the burden of noting that not everything depicted may be historically accurate should be shared by teachers and parents.

Flood recounted the story of how he almost lied throughout the entirety of Dinosaurs, until a paleontologist corrected him that the arms of theropods (like Tyrannosaurus Rex) swung inward like bird wings, and didn’t just dangle in front of them, as often seen in popular depictions.

“I had to redraw every single theropod arm,” Flood said.

Hosler said that all good stories have both a window, into the world they’re describing, and a mirror, held up to show the reader something about themselves. He said that his book Clan Apis not only explains what insect society is like, but brings the story home by featuring a protagonist dealing with the fear of death.

“Comics aren’t nearly as much fun when they’re required,” Hosler said, when asked for advice to teachers who use STEM comic texts. Flood took it a step further and said that some kids just don’t like comics, so don’t expect it to work for everyone. Hosler agreed that you might not get them all, but the ones you do get with comics, you probably wouldn’t have gotten any other way.

Kowalchuk recommended pre-reading, so teachers can find individual panels packed with enough information for several lessons, as such preparedness can help ease uncertainty about whether or not these methods will work.

“Don’t be afraid of failing,” Kowalchuk said.

During the panel, there were several slides suggesting STEM comics for different levels of education. Check them out below!


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