STEM and Comics Team Up

By Katherine L. Kan, MLS

STEM, STEAM, STREAM. These are all acronyms for a teaching approach that focuses on a combination of core concepts, including Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM), and sometimes Art (STEAM) and Reading (STREAM). Some religious private schools use R to stand for Religion for their STREAM teaching. The comics format lends itself beautifully to STEM, and has done so at least informally for many decades. I remember reading DC Comics' “Metal Men” comics in the mid-1960s. Each of the Metal Men characters was based on a metal (gold, silver, bronze, mercury, etc.), and their personalities and powers reflected the characteristics of their respective metals. The stories were completely fictional, but young readers learned something just by reading the comics.

More recently, especially during the past 15 years or so, some comics creators and publishers started producing comics that expressly taught concepts of science, mathematics, technology, and engineering. Some, such as the Max Axiom series from Capstone's Graphic Library, teach a specific topic, ranging from light to matter, sound, the scientific method, and a lot more. These books, aimed at early- to middle-grade readers, use the comics format and the fictional character Max Axiom, Super Scientist, to present information in a fun way. The stories are engaging enough that many students read these books for sheer enjoyment.

Others, such as Gene Luen Yang's “Secret Coders” series, are fictional stories that center around concepts of coding, and even include some coding activities for the middle-grade readers to try.

Still others, such as “Howtoons: Tools of Mass Construction” by Nick Dragotta and First Second Books' “Maker Comics” series, actually show readers how to make toys, tools, bake cakes, fix cars, and lots of other things.

Jeremy Whitley's “Unstoppable Wasp” comics featured Nadia's Fun Facts as small narrative snippets within the action panels, and each issue includes an interview with at least one woman scientist.

The 2019 San Diego Comic-Con included a free Comic Conference for Educators and Librarians at the San Diego Central Library. One of the panels covered teaching STEM with comics. Teachers and librarians who want to learn more about this can join the Comic Book Teachers Facebook group, where educators and librarians of all kinds post about lesson plans and give advice to people who ask about teaching with comics—not just STEM, but all subjects.

Check out the list of STEM Comics titles on Bibz to help get you started; the books listed range from books for Pre-K through high school.

Shown below are some links to lesson plans using comics.

Tracy Edmunds' Website — Tracy has some lesson plans for free, and many more for a nominal fee through her Teachers Pay Teachers store.

Pop Culture Classroom Teaching Guides — Includes most subjects, for K-12.

Solution Squad — Creator and math teacher Jim McClain provides a sample lesson plan (the prime number sieve) and links to more information. He has a complete story formatted for digital viewing, plus activities, for a small fee.

Secret Coders by Gene Luen Yang — This series is fictional, but the activities at this website are all about coding.

Diamond Book Shelf — Provided by Diamond Book Distributors; lesson plans cover mostly fiction graphic novels for K-12. Click on the link to “lesson plans” at the left side of the screen.