Comics in Scientific Communication: Should they have a role?

How can we break down complex, scientific concepts and relationships into their most basic and digestible parts? I, like many others before me, suggest that this can be done with a comic! Originally born within conventional media, comics are good at showing spatial and temporal relationships and can assist readers in understanding controversy. Furthermore, Social Science researchers have found that comics can be very effective when done well. This is not a new idea! Scientific illustrations have been used in medicine for over 2,000 years and educational comics have been implemented within the United States since the 1940s (Muzumdar, 2016).

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence showing that comics are effective in an educational environment, but is there science behind it? Specifically, are there studies that support the effectiveness of comics to disseminate knowledge about concepts in STEM? Turns out, there have been others who have had the same question! CBE Life Sciences in Education released a paper in 2011 written by Hosler and Boomer, two researchers who examined the effectiveness of comics in conveying concepts in biological sciences between non-science and science majors. They used pre- and post instruction instruments to measure students’ attitudes about biology, their attitudes about comics, and knowledge about evolution before and after using a science comic book as a teaching tool in their classrooms. While better control and treatment groups need to be implemented in the future, the raw data showed that the comic significantly increased their median content knowledge scores and improved the attitudes of non-science majors towards biology (Hosler & Boomer, 2011).

Studies pertaining to the effectiveness of comics have not stopped at the doors of academic institutions. There has also been research into the relationships between comics and the public. A paper released by Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México proposes that comics serve as an opportunity to communicate scientific information to low-literacy communities. They present an example of a comic as a way to communicate information about sustainability of the Mayan Nut, a social worthwhile message to the communities involved (Negrete, 2013). And what did they find? The comic was a piece of literature that was effective in teaching sustainability to the low literacy communities. Amazing, but what is the value of comics in communities where literacy is not an issue? Researchers from Taiwan and Canada addressed this in their paper that was released by the International Journal of Science and Education. They examined and compared the impacts of a comic book and text booklet on concepts of nanotechnology and investigated the Taiwanese public’s perceptions of using comics as a tool for science communication. The results showed that while both the comic and the text booklet significantly promoted laypeople’s knowledge of and attitudes towards nanotechnology, the comic book increased that participant’s interest in and enjoyment of learning while the textbook did not (S.-F. Lin, Lin, Lee, & Yore, 2015). So both a text booklet and comic promoted learning, but the comic stimulated interest and enjoyment whereas the text booklet did not. What does this mean? Turns out a lot, since learners’ interest and enjoyment in science are dominant factors that influence engagement (S. F. Lin, Lin, & Wu, 2013).

What do I hope readers take away from this post? Comics (when implemented correctly) can increase knowledge content, can assist in teaching low-literacy communities, and has an amazing impact on attitudes towards science. So my fellow Science Communicators, please draw away!

 

Hosler, J., & Boomer, K. B. (2011). Are comic books an

effective way to engage non-majors in learning and appreciating science? CBE Life Sciences Education, 10(3), 309–317. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.10-07-0090

Lin, S.-F., Lin, H., Lee, L., & Yore, L. D. (2015). Are Science

Comics a Good Medium for Science Communication? The Case for Public Learning of Nanotechnology. International Journal of Science Education, Part B, 5(3), 276–294. https://doi.org/10.1080/21548455.2014.941040

Lin, S. F., Lin, H. shyang, & Wu, Y. ying. (2013). Validation and

Exploration of Instruments for Assessing Public Knowledge of and Attitudes toward Nanotechnology. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 22(4), 548–559. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10956-012-9413-9

Muzumdar, J. (2016). An Overview of Comic Books as an

Educational Tool and Implications for Pharmacy An Overview of Comic Books as an Educational Tool and Implications for, 7(4).

Negrete, A. (2013). Constructing a Comic to Communicate

Scientific Information about Sustainable Development and Natural Resources in Mexico. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, 103, 200–209. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2013.10.327