C.A. Preece Fills His Classroom with Fire, Salt, Slime… and Comics!

Earlier last month, Comics Experience alumnus and Creators Workshop member C.A. Preece‘s successful Kickstarter campaign for Fire, Salt, Slime collected $6,116 to publish 80 pages of science education goodness… in comic form!

Over the past decade, more educators and educational institutions (libraries included) have recognized comic books as valuable tools to teach students of all ages everything from reading comprehension to scientific principles. And, of course, everything in between.

C.A.’s Fire, Salt, Slime pulls inspiration from his practical experience as well as the research from his dissertation. Joined by artists Kelly Krill and Timothy Taylor, his three-in-one comic covers the scientific principles of all three experiments in a way that creates excitement in children. With vibrant, dynamic art and intelligent writing that meets them at their level instead of talking down, the books also made their way into special needs, magnet, and other schools in the Kentucky area by way of donations and special discounts.

We asked C.A. a few questions about the project and his experiences with comics as a valuable educational tool.

Comics Experience: Can you explain, in detail, how you use comic books in the classroom? How does it specifically help you as a science teacher?

C.A. Preece: I use comics in various ways, which is dependent upon their intended purpose, just like any other text. Currently, I have a graphic novel published, CheMystery, that I use a supplemental reading in my chemistry classes. So, in addition to the usual text reading my students will read the comic and answer some questions as they go through it. CheMystery allows for a fun discussion of topics of interest, atoms, light, mixtures, etc. mixed with superheroes.

I have a mini-comic (about 10 pages), which is apart of my recently successful Kickstarter, that I use to assist my students with doing inquiry experiments into solubility and how that is different for ionic and covalent compounds. So, that comic is meant to prompt and assist in inquiry learning.

I’ve used a host of other comics like Climate Changed, The Cartoon Guide to Chemistry, The Stuff of Life, and Weird Weather. Last year, I used Climate Changed in my Honor’s Integrated Science class. It’s a long graphic novel, which can be a little intimidating to the students, but it is a quick read. That story brings a lot of heart and personal connection to the topic of climate change that is hard to get from other sources. The mix of image and text help foster those personal connections to have a greater impact.

CE: What needs can comic books meet that more “traditional” classroom materials and methodologies can’t?

CAP: We, the royal we, are visually driven critters. What we see is images and the written word is an abstraction of our world. Comics provide a closer look at our visual world. It is less abstract when we can have a visual and the words to go along with it rather than just words alone. Teaching chemistry can be very difficult because of all the abstract thinking that must occur with all the mental images the students need to be able to manipulate to do well in the subject. Comics help with that.

Textbooks have gotten better with providing images but comics are still king in this regard. Some may even say “Well, show a video,” and video’s can help. To my knowledge, I have read research articles that say static images are better and some that say videos are better to learn from, so the battle and the nuances on that are still unsettled. However, students have full control in a comic.

They control the pace and their minds have to be a more active participant in the learning when reading a comic over a video. Comics provide the scaffolding necessary for some learners that make them far better than texts. If you are a language learner, a reluctant reader, or just struggling with a topic in general comics will likely help you better than just a text. Assuming, of course, the comic is made for learning that particular topic.

CE: Can you tell us some more about your grant and Kickstarter project? Maybe something about the classrooms receiving your instructional materials?

CAP: I was awarded an American Chemical Society (ACS) Hach Professional Development Grant last year, which is awarded to chemistry teachers trying to improve their teaching in some way. I thought it was a bit of a long shot to ask for money to take comic writing classes to make chemistry comics, but I gave it a shot and it seems like they thought it was worthy of some money. I’m very thankful to them for the opportunity to learn more about the craft of comics to make better comics for my students.

The Kickstarter that just wrapped up last month was for 3 stories I wrote on Fire, Salt, and Slime. Fire and Salt are very similar in their purpose of promoting investigation. They start with very simple questions that start the curiosity of kids. “What is fire?” “What does it make?” “Why does salt melt ice?” “Why doesn’t all the sugar melt when I put it in water?” I start with these kinds of curious questions and start building a story and experiment.

Sometimes, my students can seem a little timid about allowing their curiosity out and experimenting with what’s around them, so I made these to model that for them. Kelly Krill is the artist on these two stories. Her lines and story telling are so fun, my students have really enjoyed seeing her work when I give them previews.

Slime is a little different. Slime certainly has fun with making different types of slime and going through the science of it, but there’s a twist at the end that makes it more like CheMystery than a straight inquiry comic. Timothy Taylor is the artist for Slime. Timothy has been doing stellar work with really fun designs. I’m dying to see it when it’s done.

As a part of the Kickstarter, I am giving away many classroom sets of Fire, Salt, Slime. Most of those classrooms are in Kentucky, specifically the Appalachian region, and one in the Carolinas. As a nation, we are having an issue with science literacy and I want to do everything I can to help that. I grew up Appalachia and hated reading textbooks, but I LOVED comics, so this is my way of trying to give back to the area and help science literacy.

CE: Where do you see the future of comics in the classroom headed?

CAP: In the past 5 years, there have been a lot more science comics made and comics made to be used in classrooms. In our recent past, there was a negative societal stigma against the ability to learn from comics and what they have to offer. I think that stigma is gone and more people are open to using them and giving them a try. I really see the future of comics in the classroom as soaring into an age of discovery. As people make more comics suited for history class, science class, math class, we will see more research done to really determine the impacts these comics can have.

CE: How has your experience with Comics Experience helped you with developing your Kickstarter and further promoting comics in the classroom on both research and practical levels?

CAP: Comics Experience has been a wonderful resource. I have taken 2 writing classes from Andy and Paul. Both have been very informative and constructive in helping me hone my craft of making science comics. I’m balancing a lot right now with teaching high school chemsitry, working on a Ph.D. in STEM Education at the University of Kentucky, and making science comics. My long term goal is to make a series of science comics that cover all the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) to make it easier for teachers to use them and to make more fun and engaging materials for students. Comics Experience is helping guide me through this process and make the best comics I can.

Regarding my research, I’m investigating science comics and their ability to help kids learn. Is it the narrative? Is it the sequential art? both? I’m also interested in if comics help in developing mental models for students.