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UK Education Doctoral Scholar Publishes Comics to Help High School Students

decorative photo of Christopher Preece holding his comic book
Christopher Preece

As a high school chemistry teacher, Christopher Preece has watched struggling students start to grasp science concepts through reading comic books. While pursuing a doctoral degree at the University of Kentucky College of Education, Preece is taking a closer look at what makes comics a useful educational tool, dissecting exactly how they impact learning.

As he works toward his Ph.D. in the Department of STEM Education, Preece’s writing goals have included more than a dissertation. He recently published his second comic book to teach chemistry, called “Fire – Salt – Slime!” It began as a Kickstarter campaign and was printed earlier this semester. The comic covers topics students have commonly struggled with in his classes — combustion, dissociation equations and polymerization of slime.

“Comics are an amazing multi-modal information source,” Preece said. “Students benefit from a close integration of text and images. Current research indicates students perform better on assessments and develop science identity from reading comics. There needs to be more research in the area to suss out exactly how comics are helping students in this way and how comics assist students’ performance compared to other information sources.”

Preece teaches integrated science and chemistry at Berea Community High School. He uses the two comics he has created, plus a few others, in his classes.

“The results tend to be that students are more likely to finish the reading and have more input into class discussion. There’s always some that get super excited that we’re reading a comic and a couple that have not read a comic before, so I have to show them how to read from panel to panel. I also like to have my students draw their own comics on certain topics, which allows them to be more creative and critically think about how to best integrate the content into a story and visual,” Preece said.

His latest comic delivers science content, but helps students focus on how to let their curiosity flow within an investigation.

“I ask my students to explore, investigate, come up with an experiment they would like to do, which is a struggle for so many,” Preece said. “This comic can act as a nice discussion on how to explore and work through an experiment.”

The Martin County native was the first in his family to earn a master’s degree and will be the first to have a Ph.D. Ultimately, he decided to enroll in a doctoral program to pass along what he learns and to become a better teacher.

“Taking the courses for my Ph.D. has presented new ways of teaching in an in depth way that challenged some of my initial views, which has altered my teaching,” he said. “I hope my students are better off for it. I chose UK due to their STEM Education focus and to be close to home.”

Studying with his faculty advisor, Jennifer Wilhelm, professor of STEM Education, Preece’s dissertation research is examining the effects of reading chemistry content through four information sources (illustrated text, illustrated narrative text, infographic and comic book).

“I want to understand more about how comics are helping students learn. Are students benefiting more from the art or narrative? I’m also curious as to how the information delivery is affecting student mental models,” he said.

Molly Fisher, the director of graduate studies for STEM Education, encourages students to pursue a variety of research interests.

“Any time a teacher can take something they are passionate about, like Christopher has done with comics, and integrate it into their classroom, that passion is going to shine through and help them connect with students. We take pride in helping our doctoral scholars pursue their passions and contribute to the literature on these unique topics,” Fisher said.

To learn more about Preece’s comics, email him at cap@nullatomicuniverse.org or connect with him on Instagram @s.t.e.m.curiosity.