Chemistry Goes To The Comics Thanks To One Marquette University Student

Feb 3, 2020

Teaching often means using creative ways to get through to students about complex subjects. For example, at Marquette University, an assignment has led one undergrad to create a children's comic book about chemistry. 

Art has often been used to teach, including about science. Even very commercial art. For example, in the 1966 science fiction film Fantastic Voyage, a submarine crew was made tiny and sent inside a man. A trailer from the film boasted, "Off on a fantastic voyage, actually entering, inside, the human body, exploring an unknown universe!  Unknown danger!"

About 30 years later, the cartoon The Magic School Bus shrunk the bus, teacher Ms. Frizzle and most of her students, and sent them inside a classmate named Arnold. "We're heeeere.  Yay, we're back where we started. These are Arnold's skin cells. Cool!" the travelers exclaimed.

When Pouya Mirzaei was growing up, the first year Marquette University student was a fan of The Magic School Bus. He says that helped when his general chemistry professor asked their class last fall to create a children's book about chemistry. 

Mirzaei eventually decided to shrink his characters, Danny and Noble, so Danny could get a better understanding of atoms.

"Specifically, it's atomic bonds, so how atoms interact with each other. It's one of the more basic principles of chemistry. So since this is targeted towards children, I thought the best principles to choose are the basic ones," Mirzaei recently told WUWM.

Marquette University student Pouya Mirzaei (left) and chemistry professor Llanie Nobile hold Mirzaei's chemistry comic book.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Mirzaei is majoring in biomedical sciences and hopes to go to medical school. But he decided he make his assignment a comic book because he's also had another ambition. 

''Ever since I was a kid, I loved reading comic books. It was like one of my favorite pastimes. And one of my dreams, is to create a comic book when I am older. So, I thought this is a good chance to practice. It'll take me some extra time, but why not?” Mirzaei said.

Stuck With Atomic Bonds is the title of the comic book. Mirzaei says he got a little stuck trying to finish the 12 pages of illustrations. 

"Doing all that in a small, compact time, it takes a lot out of you," Mirzaei said.

Mirzaei says to finish the comic book and keep up in other classes required about 20 hours of work, including an all-nighter or two. But he says the effort was worth it, as Marquette University chemistry professor Llanie Nobile says Mirzaei got an A on the assignment. 

The instructor only found out during our interview that the character Noble is named after her. Nobile says one of her goals was to see if her students picked up what she was teaching them, by having them explain it to others.

"Because I think it was Albert Einstein that said, 'If you can explain something simply, you understand it,' " she said.

The comic book "Stuck With Atomic Bonds" breaks down atomic bonds.
Credit Courtesy of Pouya Mirzaei

That's also a skill useful for adults, Nobile adds.

"A lot of times, if we work with just other scientists, we can keep things pretty complicated. But when you look outside, when we're dealing with the media, or dealing with the business side, finances, for us to understand what we know on more layman's terms, is a bit challenging," Nobile said.  

Keeping things simple, fun and creative are things many educators do every day. But Mirazaei says he'd like to see more of that.

"Anything that's not just being told facts. That seems like it would spark a lot more interest," Mirzaei said.

Mirazaei knows something about keeping things interesting. His comic book ends with the cliffhanger of characters Danny and Noble not knowing how to get back to normal size. Do they make it, eventually?

"We'll have to see," Mirzaei answered, adding that Stuck With Atomic Bonds may have a sequel.

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