Graphic Novels and STEAM: Strategies and Texts for Utilization in STEAM Education

Graphic Novels and STEAM: Strategies and Texts for Utilization in STEAM Education

Alex Romagnoli (Monmouth University, USA)
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 16
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-2334-5.ch002
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Focusing on the interdisciplinary connections between STEAM education and graphic novels, this chapter first establishes historical and educational contexts for the use of graphic novels in STEAM education. A literature review focusing on the use of graphic novels in a science course as well as how graphic novels have been used in secondary classrooms will be discussed. Literature that is reviewed includes books, articles, and edited volumes. The strategies for implementing graphic novels in STEAM education promote constructivist learning as students are asked to access their intellectual and cultural capital in order to ascertain meaning from given content. Additionally, multimodality and multiliteracies are highlighted throughout the article. Finally, this chapter ends with linking the use of graphic novels in STEAM education to the power of narrative inquiry in educational contexts.
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In All-Star Superman (Morrison & Quitely, 2011), the superhero Superman finds himself in a laboratory full of amazing and bizarre science experiments. After having saved pioneer astronauts who were exploring the outer atmosphere of The Sun, Superman tests his strength levels in this futuristic menagerie of scientific extravagance. The head scientist tells Superman, “You’re now pushing against the equivalent of 200 quintillion tons, Superman” (p. 20). However, Superman’s trip to The Sun to save the astronauts had a side-effect:

Your trip to the Sun exposed you to critical levels of stellar radiation, more raw energy than your cells are able to process efficiently. Apoptosis has begun. Cell death. There can be only one outcome even for You. (p. 20)

Superman’s exposure to The Sun is more than he can take, and within one year, The Man of Steel will meet his end. This is the premise of Morrison and Quitely’s acclaimed graphic novel All-Star Superman which has been used as a text to teach composition (Romagnoli, 2015).

The value of this text doesn’t end with the story, though. Looking back at the scenario that was just presented, unmistakable teaching moments have arisen. 200 quintillion tons? Solar atmosphere? Apoptosis? Cells processing solar energy? A science lesson has just occurred.


Literature Review

The STEAM and Comic Connection

Comic books have traditionally been associated with science and technology, and Jones (2004) even traced the connection of science and popular literature to the “pulps” of the early 20th century:

In the archaeology of popular culture, the August 1928 issue of Amazing Stories appears again and again as a pivotal memory of a generation of moviemakers, science fiction writers, cartoonists, astronomers, futurists, and rocket engineers. Against a lucid yellow background floats a man in a skintight red costume, leather pilot’s helmet, and sleek black boots, his body prone but angling upward in an attitude of nascent flight. (p. 30)

Most important to note from Jones’ historical study of comic books is his implicit connection of various and diverse disciplines: cartoonists, astronomers, moviemakers, and rocket engineers. This is the essence of STEAM education: the idea that the logistics of scientific realities are informed by the aesthetics of the imaginations of the scientists and engineers who are responsible for the creation and implementation of new machines. Most importantly, this has been the case for a long period of time.

The graphic novel, “A comic style narrative, fictional or nonfictional, that is either a collection of individual comic book issues or an extended, original work” (Romagnoli, 2013), has transcended its pulp roots to inform culture, popular media, and education. Tatalovic (2009) has presented a proverbial call to action for both educators and scientists about incorporating graphic novels and comics into science education. This incorporation is to help bridge the gap between those who work in the sciences (engineers, scientists, mechanics, educators, etc.) and those who do not (students, general public). Recognition of the benefits that comics possess for education is becoming more apparent in science education:

from my exploratory research of science comics, it appears that scientists and educators are becoming more aware of the appeal that comics hold for young people and are starting to use them more as a vehicle to communicate scientific ideas. (p. 4)

The benefits of the comics lies in the very structure of the medium which incorporates multiple modes of interpretation for readers to interact with.

The unique combination of visual stimuli with accompanied narration and dialogue allows for students to access multiple modes of interpretation and comprehension that might otherwise be missing in a monomodal text. An interesting way of approaching graphic novels is to think of them as traditional novels that have the setting and the action drawn instead of written. Some educators may view that as blasphemous, but the visual nature of graphic novels provide unseen benefits to students who are becoming increasingly versatile in their abilities to interpret meaning from varying sources, both traditional and academically unestablished.

Even though comics have traditionally been relegated to the proverbial slums of literary canon because of their sophomoric content and/or emphasis on superheroes, their structure can be beneficial to students because of their visual characteristics. Specifically, graphic novels access students' “multiliteracies” (Cazden et al., 1996) which have become a mainstay in literary studies over the past twenty years.

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