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A Chemistry Adventure: University of Arizona professor teaches chemistry through comic book series

UA Professor comic book adventure
Posted at 6:59 AM, Mar 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-28 13:38:08-04

TUCSON, Arizona (KGUN) — From adventures with superheroes and Van Gogh's paintings, a University of Arizona professor is helping students learn high level chemistry concepts through a comic book series.

Chemistry instructor Colleen Kelley said she was inspired by her students because they were often overwhelmed by the subject, especially once they got to college.

"My quest to find why all these students thought chemistry was hard and I just loved it,” she said.

So she put her imagination to work and began telling stories during her lessons. Her students told her that she should write them down because the stories were entertaining.

"They would be laughing, you know, they would be sitting there reading them and say 'hey this is really funny'," she said.

In collaboration with a former student who is an artist and a local graphic artist, she put together a comic book series. It's called M.C. Detective Agency: Chemical Solutions Required and dives into different college level chemistry concepts with main characters Poppi and Ray.

"I wanna make it accessible I want them to understand that it’s not 100% based on math in fact the kind of chemistry that I teach - the organic chemistry and the bio chemistry there’s no math so if you understand musical symbols you can understand chemistry," she said.

In conjunction with Tech Launch Arizona, she brought the book to life and got local elementary school students to read the comic. At first, she gave the series to 8th through 10th grade students, but she found that 4th through 6th graders were more receptive to the books.

"I knew people with fourth and fifth graders so I said lets try this,” she said. "It was a nice surprise that when you’re eight years old you can still learn chemistry.”

In 2020, 5th grader Aidan Kastner was one of the first kids to get the book. He said it was so exciting to learn about something he's interested in and it was easier to learn.

"They were very fun and enjoyable because they had these really interesting characters," he said.

4th grader Dori Kendall and her brother Daniel said it wasn't impossible to learn the concepts.

"I was nervous that I wasn't going to catch on but I did," she said.

His mom, Bee Schlotec, said it not only prepared for chemistry class, but was a way for kids to take a break from screens especially during the pandemic. She said the books related chemistry to the real world, which helps them understand the concepts.

“Because they see it all around them," she said. "If you talk about chlorine, he's a swimmer, so he’s going to know why his skin itches when he gets out of the pool."

Kelley hopes to mass produce more issues of the comic series and even create an animated television show.


Phil Villarreal is the senior real-time editor for KGUN 9. He is also a digital producer and host of "Phil on Film" seen weekly on Good Morning Tucson, Phil moved to KGUN after 17 years with the Arizona Daily Star. He is married and has four children. Share your story ideas and important issues with Phil by emailing or by connecting on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.