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UArizona instructor makes chemistry fun by creating comic books

Boom! Fizzz! Ker-POW!
ColleenKelley crop.jpg
Posted at 9:06 PM, Mar 25, 2022

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — A chemistry instructor at the University of Arizona creates comics not only to make chemistry fun but to make it easier for students to learn.

Colleen Kelley manages the instructional laboratories in the UArizona Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Her goal is to make chemistry education more entertaining for children between the ages of 8 to 12.

"Comic books are not like textbooks," Kelley said. "They're fun and exciting."

During the 25 years of teaching chemistry, Kelley noticed students got overwhelmed when it came to college level chemistry.

After talking to middle and high school science teachers, she made it her mission to find the flaws in chemistry courses that led students to struggle.

"There is a massive leap between what is expected of students taking chemistry in middle school and what is expected in high school," Kelley said.

Her theory was to get student accustomed to symbols and then bring in some math and conceptual ideas.

Kelley first became aware of the struggles in students when her son got home with an assignment where he had to color the periodic table different colors and he didn't know what was the purpose for doing so.

She refers to teaching chemistry the same as teaching music.

"When I look at molecules, I see them dance," Kelley said. "I have come to understand that chemistry can be taught very similarly to the way we teach music, with its symbols, notation and imagery. But it took me 25 years of teaching to figure this out."

Kelley teamed up with a graphic artist, Mackenzie Reagan, one of her son's friend who happened to be in high school when they worked together to develop the first chemistry characters.

Kelley developed a series of 10 comic books to bring chemistry to life where chemical elements take on the identities of characters such as twins Poppi and Ray, who run the M.C. Detective Agency and apply chemistry to solve mysteries.

Poppi and Ray's chemical detective adventures include going back in time to save the "Radium Girls," traveling to a modern-day rock concert to save a vanishing Van Gogh painting, and swimming in a bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume to uncover the "hiding aldehydes." The letters M.C. in M.C. Detective Agency represent for Marie Curie, a Polish-French scientist known for her pioneering research on radioactivity.

Kelley is working on finishing more episodes of the series: Book one, "The Case of the Deadly Dials" where she introduces the true story of the Radium Girls who are female factory workers who experienced radiation poisoning after finishing watch faces with radioactive paint in the 1920s.

As of right now, one book has been completed and three more are currently being story boarded at various stages.

Since it takes about six months and $10,000 to create a book, Kelly is looking for grant funding opportunities to achieve her goal of making chemistry fun for students.

Bivian Contreras is a real-time editor for KGUN 9. Bivian graduated from the University of Arizona School of Journalism with a Bachelor's degree in Journalism with an emphasis in Broadcast and is currently pursuing a degree in Broadcast Operational Meteorology. Share your story ideas and important issues with Bivian by emailing or by connecting on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.