Unconventional textbooks help kids find fun in STEM

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Textbook Comic Strip

Superhero Sara and the Magic Science Book (Illustration by: Samantha Harrington)

Comic books, narratives and daring experiments aren’t traditional elements of STEM textbooks, but a wide variety of styles and formats for math and science books are beginning to emerge. These books offer a deviation from the standard, hard number- and fact-based books that have traditionally been used to teach STEM subjects.

Experiment-based science books

“Bet you can get hooked on this book after trying only one trick,” begins “We Dare You,” a science book by Vicki Cobb and Kathy Darling. "We Dare You" aims to show kids that science is fun and relevant to their lives. The book includes more than 200 kid-friendly experiments. In one experiment, kids stick a piece of Scotch tape on a balloon and try to pop it with a pin. Kids are surprised to find that the balloon doesn’t pop. The book explains that, unlike the balloon material, the tape is strong enough to withstand the pressure of the air inside the balloon when it tries to escape. Kids are able to see these forces interacting right before their eyes. Each experiment allows kids to learn and understand science concepts by doing. The inspiration behind this method comes from the personal experience of one of "We Dare You’s" authors. Cobb, once a science teacher, is now a well-known science author who has written more than 85 books. Cobb says she took to writing books because she felt that the way most science books are written is not properly geared toward children. “What I learned as a teacher was that the materials that I had to teach from were terrible. They didn’t resonate with the students,” Cobb says. “I found that they didn’t speak child--they didn’t speak to the students--and you lost a lot of kids because you didn’t connect.” Cobb says that in order for kids to learn, they have to be able to contextualize and apply science to their own lives. “You’re not going to find the key to getting kids excited about science unless you give them good reading material,” she says.

Comic math books

Like Cobb, Jason Batterson is a former-teacher-turned-book-writer. Batterson is one of the creators of Beast Academy, an elementary math curriculum explained in comic form. Batterson taught eighth-grade math in North Carolina for nine years. While teaching he got involved in the math competition scene, and Batterson wrote his first book, “Competition Math for Middle School”. Batterson was then hired create a new elementary math curriculum for a math organization called Art of Problem Solving. Batterson decided on using monster characters and a graphic novel format to teach elementary students math. The pages of the Beast Academy books are full of brightly colored monsters, tiny elefinches (elephant/finch combinations), and math. The monsters help teach each other difficult math concepts through simple activities. In one lesson, a two-headed monster is sitting on a park bench. One of the monster’s heads teaches the other head that squares are like pigeons and rectangles like birds—all pigeons are birds and all squares are rectangles, but not all birds are pigeons and nor are all rectangles squares. Batterson says the comic book form “seemed like a very good way to teach math--not just because it’s fun for kids to look at, but because we get to create dialogue. We get to have the little monsters in the book talk about math in the way we want kids to talk about math, and model the conversation we want to have in various classrooms.” Batterson says he chose the monster theme because they wanted the characters to be recognizable and relatable to all kids. “We wanted characters that didn’t belong to a race or didn’t belong to a group that kids recognized. We wanted them to be something that every kid could recognize and relate to and strange as it might seem, that turned out to be the best way--doing little monsters instead of little people.” The Beast Academy curriculum is relatively new and is still in the process of being finalized. Batterson says they have just finished the third-grade books and are working on the fourth-grade series. He hopes that the first fourth-grade book will be published in the coming month. The Beast Academy books are mostly used in home school and afterschool settings. Batterson says that the Beast Academy approach differs from traditional teaching because the books aim to teach concepts that kids can apply to a wide range of problems.

More authors to check out

Larry Gonick: a cartoonist who has partnered with math and science professors to create books like the “Cartoon Guide to Genetics and the Cartoon guide to Statistics.” His works are geared towards the college level. Mary Corcoran: a former teacher who presents biology in a story format. Her books include “the Circulatory Story” and “the Quest to Digest.” “They put the reader ‘in’ the situation, the body, and let the reader experience what is happening,” Corcoran says.