Revolutionizing Chemistry Education with Comic Books & Storytelling: A Q&A with Dr. Colleen Kelley

ACSGCI
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The creator and founder of Kids Chemical Solutions, Colleen Kelley, Ph.D., pioneers an innovative approach to teaching chemistry through comic books.

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As the creator and founder of Kids’ Chemical Solutions, Colleen Kelley, Ph.D., pioneers an innovative approach to teaching chemistry: through comic books. Drawing from her rich background as an instructor and laboratory manager for organic chemistry at the University of Arizona, she embarked on a mission to make chemistry accessible and engaging for students of all ages.

Since the inception of this idea in 2015, Kelley has been weaving science and storytelling together in her comic book series, now spanning four issues. Through her imaginative narratives, she transforms complex chemical concepts into thrilling adventures where molecules are personified as fun characters.

In this Q&A, Kelley shares what inspired her to create the comic series, the impact she hopes it will have on young learners, and her plan to expand her impact on green chemistry education.

What inspired you to use comic books as a tool for teaching chemistry?

The inspiration for my comics really came out of necessity. Initially, I found myself struggling to effectively convey chemistry concepts in a traditional manner, resulting in a substantial number of students who didn’t understand the fundamental concepts. I turned to storytelling and created characters that could personify molecules with stories that illustrated their interactions with each other. Moving from the whiteboard to their imaginations allowed me to facilitate a deeper understanding of chemistry.

For instance, likening a bromine atom attached to carbon to the adventurous spirit of Winnie the Pooh while contrasting a fluorine atom's steadfastness to Piglet's cautious nature enabled students to visualize and internalize molecular behaviors in a relatable and engaging manner.

Over time, I began to run out of Disney characters and recognized the need for more robust and informative characters, prompting me to create my own that could embody the unique characteristics of the atoms and molecules they represent.

How has the impact of your comics differed from traditional chemistry education in introducing students to concepts and molecular models? 

After 30 years of experience in the classroom, I recognize the challenge of molecular literacy—the ability to connect two or more symbols of elements to create a molecular formula. My comic books create a strong foundation for building molecular literacy. 

If we consider the periodic table the alphabet of science, when you combine two elements, they become a word. When you combine several of these words, you get an equation that becomes a sentence. Enough sentences create a reaction mechanism, which we can interpret as a paragraph. These paragraphs put forth a thesis that can develop toward synthesis. There are all kinds of parallels with literacy, and I find that comic books help us start from the beginning. 

Often, traditional chemistry education skims over the fundamentals provided by the periodic table before students go off to college. It’s like teaching the alphabet to a child for 6 months and then sending them off to college to read. Glossing over the basics with assumptions that students will learn them elsewhere is partly why students are so uncomfortable with symbols, formulas, and equations. 

My comic books are a foundational tool designed to provide a comprehensive approach from the outset. By instilling molecular literacy early on, the goal of my comics is to empower students and enable educators to elevate their teaching to new levels. 

Can you share how your comic books connect with green and sustainable chemistry?

There are several ways in which they align with sustainability and green chemistry.

The very first comic book, "The Case of the Deadly Dials," introduces protagonists Poppi and Ray, siblings who have to figure out a way to save the radium girls from being poisoned by radium — which is based on real-life history in which female factory workers were sickened by radiation poisoning from painting watches and military dials with paint that contained radium, a radioactive element that glows in the dark. 

The first comic highlighted those unsafe working environments and the dangers of working with radioactive materials. This narrative serves as an introduction to the repercussions of hazardous materials and the importance of safe practices in industry.

Furthermore, the comics delve into elemental environmental chemistry and toxicology, exploring the harmful effects of substances like lead, as seen in Vincent van Gogh's "Starry Night." By intertwining scientific concepts with real-world examples, readers gain insight into the environmental implications of chemical elements and compounds.

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Moreover, my comic books are reusable. Unlike disposable science kits, my books are designed to be used again and again. They can sit on library shelves for 50 years and be utilized repeatedly without generating waste. In addition to reusable materials, I incorporate hands-on activities into my comics, all of which are food-based. By making every chemical concept edible, I ensure that learning is not only engaging but also environmentally friendly and nutritious.

As you work on completing more issues of your comic series, what educational objectives are you aiming to achieve with each book? What does the future of the series look like?

We have released the first four comics in the series, scaffolding some of the learning objectives from a 100-level college chemistry course. The first comic covers learning objectives from the first chapter of a college chemistry textbook. What students learn from the comic series so far spans what typically gets taught in the first unit of an AP Chemistry class or a freshman college course. The first four represent the molecular literacy packet, which will take students far enough to read formulas.

The future beyond this point is contingent on being able to implement comic books in schools and generate enough revenue to sustain more issues. The series totals four comics right now, and we've already invested $150,000 to get where we are today.

How has it been integrating your comic books into schools? Have you had support from your publisher or other partners?

My publisher has been incredibly supportive in helping me partner with different schools. One avenue we've explored is teaching sessions in elementary schools, where I personally engage with students. Currently, I’m engaging with fourth and fifth graders using comic books, and the response has been incredibly positive. These students are not only grasping college-level chemistry concepts but also having a lot of fun in the process. 

We've seen early adopters of the books emerge in both private and public schools, indicating a growing interest in integrating comics into traditional curricula. Additionally, we've found a particularly receptive audience among homeschoolers, whose curriculum is often heavy on hands-on learning and lacking in molecular literacy. Targeted homeschool audiences have allowed us to gain traction and reach a broader audience that really benefits from the comics.

My vision is for these comics to be in every school, whether public, private, or homeschooling. By embedding them into the educational journey of fourth and fifth graders, we aim to make molecular literacy a fundamental aspect of early science education.

How do you plan to commercialize your method, and what impact do you hope to achieve in chemistry education?

Since launching our first comic book in October 2022, we've been working to expand our offerings to include a comprehensive curriculum, including additional comic books, activity packets, puzzles, lesson plans, intermediate materials, and even web-based games. 

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As a relatively new venture, Kids’ Chemical Solutions operates as a startup, entirely self-funded at this point. While we haven't secured external funding yet, we’re open to sponsorships, donations, and partnerships that can help propel our mission forward. 

The potential impact that these comic books can have in particularly underserved communities has become more apparent to me. Looking ahead to the latter half of 2024 and next year, our focus will shift towards seeking donors and sponsors to purchase books to donate to libraries in underserved areas. Libraries are an important community feature offering free education, and by making our books available there, we aim to reach students in underserved communities.

Importantly, my comic books are designed to be self-directed, empowering students to learn without a teacher. Sponsorship and donations will be important in getting these comic books where they need to go — especially considering that our materials offer a cost-effective alternative to traditional laboratory experiences. 

To keep up with Kelley’s work, follow her on LinkedIn or explore the Kids’ Chemical Solutions website!