'Boom! Fizzz! Ker-POW!' – UArizona instructor's comics turn chemistry into adventure

Colleen Kelley is a chemistry instructor at the University of Arizona's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Colleen Kelley is a chemistry instructor at the University of Arizona's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Olivia Mendoza/University of Arizona

Imagine a world where chemical elements aren't cryptic acronyms but charismatic superheroes; where molecules aren't formulas but heavy metal bands; and where chemical reactions play out in suspenseful story plots rather than a bunch of abstract symbols and lifeless numbers. Welcome to the world of Colleen Kelley, a chemistry instructor at the University of Arizona.

Crediting herself with a "wild imagination," Kelley has teamed up with a graphic artist to turn otherwise drab concepts into exciting learning experiences via chemistry comic books. Her goal: Change chemistry education to engage eager learners between the ages of 8 and 12. 

"Comic books are not like textbooks," says Kelley, who manages the instructional laboratories in the UArizona Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. "They're fun and exciting."

Over the course of her 25-year career teaching chemistry, Kelley noticed that many students appeared to be overwhelmed once they took chemistry at the college level. Through conversations with middle and high school science teachers, she embarked on a mission to identify the shortcomings in chemistry curricula that leave many learners struggling with the subject in college. 

"There is a massive leap between what is expected of students taking chemistry in middle school and what is expected in high school," Kelley says.

That prompted her to think of ways she could help bridge that gap. However, once she began to interview middle school chemistry teachers, she came to understand another issue: "Many of them seem to not enjoy chemistry in the slightest, so, I looked for ways that would inspire them to teach a curriculum that's more robust and accessible to the students at the same time." 

Some knowledge of chemistry is important for incoming college students, Kelley says. Majors related to biology, environmental science, atmospheric science and pre-medicine, for example, require two to three years of chemistry instruction as a prerequisite. Kelley believes early exposure to molecular models and other ideas unique to chemistry is the best way to prepare students. 

"My theory is to get them in as early, eager learners and get them accustomed to symbols, and later introduce some math and conceptual ideas, so by the time they get to high school and college, they can take off," she says.

Kelley says she first became aware of the need to revamp chemistry education when her son, who was in middle school at the time, came home with an assignment to color the elements in the periodic table with different colors. 

"When I asked him why he was supposed to do that, he said he didn't know," Kelley recalls. "That's when I realized that something was amiss. Typically, middle school teachers aren't trained in chemistry – just basic science – so I thought these teachers needed help."

Based on her insights as a chemistry teacher and her conversations with K-12 educators and students, Kelley favors what she calls a more conceptual, or symbolic, approach to the material, which she considers a more accessible way of learning chemistry compared to traditional teaching.

"When I look at molecules, I see them dance," Kelley says. "I have come to understand that chemistry can be taught very similarly to the way we teach music, with its symbols, notation and imagery. But it took me 25 years of teaching to figure this out."

Kelley says she has observed that many students in high school and advance placement chemistry courses tend to "math" their way out of certain problems, relying on rote memorization and calculations rather than using conceptual understanding, which is a skill they need to master once they reach college. Her comic book approach is designed to set students on the conceptual thinking track from the beginning of their chemistry education.  

To help bring chemistry to life, Kelley developed a series of 10 comic books in which chemical elements take on the identities of characters, such as twins Poppi and Ray, who run the M.C. Detective Agency and apply chemistry to solve mysteries. Designed to encourage early learners to ​​master chemical concepts in a fun and engaging way, the stories have a chemistry curriculum cleverly concealed in their exciting plots and colorful graphics. To translate her story ideas into comics, Kelley teamed up with graphic artist Mackenzie Reagan, a friend of Kelley's son who was still in high school when she worked with Kelley to develop the first chemistry comic characters. 

Poppi and Ray's adventures as chemical sleuths include traveling back in time to rescue the "Radium Girls," attending a modern-day rock concert to save a vanishing Van Gogh painting, and swimming in a bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume to find the "hiding aldehydes." Readers eventually discover that M.C. in M.C. Detective Agency stands for Marie Curie, the Polish-French physicist famous for her pioneering research on radioactivity.

"Poppi stands for the element of polonium, Ray for radium and Granny Eve is named after Marie Curie's youngest daughter," Kelley says.

Excerpt page of the comic “The Case of the Vanishing van Gogh."

In “The Case of the Vanishing van Gogh," protagonists Poppi and Ray discover that when a band member from "The Heavy Metals" plays a duet with a band member from "The Polyatomics," certain colors re-appear in Vincent van Gogh’s famous "Starry Night" painting. For example, when Cadmium plays a duet with one of the "Pyschedelic Sulfurs," yellow re-appears because cadmium (II) sulfide is a yellow compound.

Colleen Kelley, Mackenzie Reagan

During test runs with students ages 8 to 11, Kelley has already seen promising results for how the comics help students acquire chemistry skills. She sent a book to about 10 families around the country, had them read it with their children, and then met with them over Zoom to talk about the material.

"What I have observed in these Zoom sessions is that these kids aged 8 to 11 can confidently and quickly write formulas for complex ionic compounds and write and balance chemical equations after reading the comics on their own," Kelley says. "This is a skill that even college-level students struggle with, using the traditional chemistry approach."

Kelley says that in order to incorporate her chemistry comics as part of a school's formal curriculum, she would likely need to go through private or charter schools, where curriculum standards tend to be more malleable. Ultimately, though, her goal is to demonstrate the efficacy and appeal of the comic book series so it can be placed in public school classrooms because "that is really where the need is," she says.  

So far, one book, "The Case of the Vanishing van Gogh," has been finished, and three more are in various stages of storyboarding.

It takes about six months and $10,000 to take one book from script to a finished, printed product. To keep the momentum going, Kelley is seeking grant funding opportunities and eventually hopes to commercialize her method. 

To that end, she has created a startup company, Kids' Chemical Solutions, as part of the current cohort of the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps, or I-Corps program. Facilitated by Tech Launch Arizona, I-Corps at UArizona is a program designed to prepare scientists and engineers to increase the impact of their research. It also provides funding and guidance for researchers to assess their work's commercial viability. 

For now, Kelley is working to finish more episodes of the series: Book one, "The Case of the Deadly Dials" introduces the true story of the so-called Radium Girls – female factory workers who experienced radiation poisoning after finishing watch faces with radioactive paint in the 1920s. Book two, "The Case of the Missing Atomic Model," presents readers with atomic structure and subatomic particles. In book three, "The Case of the Pillaging Pirates,"  Poppi and Ray travel back in time, Kelley says.

"Their mission is to save Lady Xenon, who is being held captive by the dreaded Pirate Clive – chlorine – as he holds her hostage for more electrons."

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