Comics help physics students learn concepts

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The Mexican cartoonist Juanele has a full-time job as a university physics professor; Juan Manuel Ramirez de Arellano teaches at the Mexico City campus of the Tecnologico de Monterrey. He combines those two activities by using comics to help his students understand concepts, and he gave a presentation, March 6, at San Diego Comic Fest called “Science and Comics in the Classroom: an Experience in Mexico.”

“Science and comics are about my personality, and they are a complement to each other,” Juanele said.

Juanele utilizes that combination for his classes.

“In the classroom I find a good place to be creative about comics and science,” he said. “My students seem to like what I do.”

The San Diego Comic Fest presentation included Juanele’s own comics but also referenced other examples of teaching science in a comic form.

“You have the visualization and the narrative that helps you realize science,” Juanele said.

Randall Munroe has a physics degree and worked at NASA before becoming a comic artist, and Munroe now uses his www.xkcd.com domain to incorporate his scientific past into his sketches.

“It’s visually clear,” Juanele said.

Jorge Cham has a doctorate in mechanical engineering and utilizes his website at www.phdcomics.com to explain science. “The Dialogues” is a book written by University of Southern California physics professor Clifford Johnson which uses the comic format to address various science concepts. The French cartoonist Jean-Yves Duhoo reaches the public about science through his Le Labo sequential art.

“Comics are a very good form to get these messages around,” Juanele said.

Rius was the professional name of Eduardo Del Rio, who drew cartoons in Mexico. Rius began his career as a satirist and also used his graphic illustration skills for history, nutrition and other subjects. Rius did not have a scientific background but often utilized a scientific approach to explain concepts including the use of references, and Rius was also willing to alter his perspective when circumstances warranted a change of viewpoint.

Although the subject matter is different, university learning primarily utilizes the same method as classrooms did centuries ago.

“Not much has changed,” Juanele said. “The teacher takes the most of the time and the students try to take notes.”

That can cause problems for first-semester students.

“Maybe they don’t get the idea. They don’t get the concept because they can’t visualize it,” Juanele said. “They lose motivation because they can’t get it at first.”

Clearer and more energizing materials which are visually attractive often enhance actual retention of knowledge discussed in a classroom.

“The question is how can you explain this in your own words,” Juanele said. “At some point I have to give them material and at that point I use the comic.”

Juanele has been teaching for approximately 10 years. His Cuco and Pepo comics utilize a worm and a human child.

“One of the first times that I used comics in the classroom was to explain some concepts about kinematics,” Juanele said.

That placed Cuco on the x-axis with his position at five time points.

“Cuco went forward, but maybe he did more than that,” Juanele said.

Next, Juanele explained average velocity and instant velocity.

“I try to connect these short stories with the science behind,” he said. “I enjoyed doing all of this. I will always try to use any excuse to do comics.”

Cuco and Pepo are still friends despite games involving physical targets, and when Pepo tries to hit Cuco by throwing tamales the use of the Mexican cuisine as a projectile explains the concept of parabolic motion.

Pepo and his friends Mike and Lucha are pushing each other around to address another topic of physics.

“I get to explain the concept of force,” Juanele said.

That scene also has other unnamed children outside the circle with the three main characters. Pepo, Mike and Lucha are pushing each other and pushing each other back.

“Those would be internal forces and they would all cancel each other out,” Juanele said.

If the other children start pushing the three main characters that would constitute external force.

“That would not be countered by any other force,” Juanele said.

The cartoons provide student engagement.

“Maybe they don’t remember anything of what I said, but they remember Cuco,” Juanele said. “I found that the concepts are better explained by visual resources, by visual narrative.”

Students can also focus on those concepts.

“You have a relaxed environment,” Juanele said. “It contributes to learning.”

San Diego Comic Fest also included a March 7 session called “Star Wars: Best and Worst Sciences” in which Juanele and four other panelists addressed the consistency of the various Star Wars movies with the laws of science. Juanele used Cuco and Pepo to explain scientific barriers to hyperspace travel.

“I think this is a creative way for me to continue making comics, teaching classes at the same time,” Juanele said.

Joe Naiman can be reached by email at jnaiman@reedermedia.com.