Talking about science and technology... with comics!
By Mathilde Bessert-Nettelbeck (University of Freiburg, Cluster of Excellence “BrainLinks-BrainTools”) and Philipp Schrögel (Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Department for Science Communication)
The idea of STEAM education can be understood as the business of building bridges. Seemingly isolated islands of subjects get connected to build a diverse and comprehensive learning experience - including art and design. But there is a need for even more bridges to be built, outside of the classroom. Science communication takes on the task of building bridges between science and the public. Art and design is also playing an increasing role as catalyst and mediator here, being it science theater projects or artistic perspectives on scientific visualizations.
Talking about bridges, it is important to consider that a bridge has no preferred direction – it can be crossed both ways. The same holds true for science communication. While informing and educating the public is one undoubted goal for science communication, the public also has something to say about science and technology, be it opinions on ethical aspects or the democratic demand to participate in discussions on science policy. Traditional means to that would be town hall meetings or discussion workshops. However, complex topics like potential future developments of science and societal impact are often difficult to grasp in a rather abstract discussion. Here again, one solution is to use art and design as a more intuitive access to a discussion and to trigger a reflection and both-sided interactions.
Comics can be found in all the fields mentioned above. The use of educational comics in the classroom dates back at least to the 1950s, teaching various subjects from mathematics to history. Comics are used in science communication (not only for kids) to tell stories of scientific discoveries and describe voyages to normally inaccessible worlds like the nanocosms or outer space. But comics can also be used as a tool for dialogue. The visual language and the storytelling approach make comics a powerful tool to access science and technology issues. By thinking about stories and drawing comics, one can express opinions, ethical judgements, and thoughts on possible future developments without needing to have experience in formulating complex treatises. This method of “comic thinking” builds on the work of Nick Sousanis, who submitted his dissertation “Unflattening” as a comic - he sees “comics as a way of thinking.”
In two different projects in Germany, one hosted by the organization “Science in Dialogue” (Wissenschaft im Dialog), the other by the University of Freiburg, we implemented an approach that uses comics as an expressive tool to engage youth in a dialogue about science and technology, and their societal implications. While both workshops have been conducted independently, each had the same assessment and expectations on comic workshops as a method to engage youth:
Creating comics allows reach of new audiences
Working with comics has the advantage to also include students that are not inherently interested in science. The creative, non-traditional approach encourages students that are more reluctant to engage with science at school to investigate research topics and judge technological developments. This can also bridge gender or socioeconomic imbalances in student preferences.
Creating comics allows to dig deeper into the ethical and societal reflection of STEM-topics
Workshop participants have to look for a narrative, a perspective, and learn to contextualize research and innovation. What is the opinion of the engineer, of the user of the technology, or even of the object itself? Graphical storytelling goes beyond mere factual depictions, allowing for ethical and societal reflections, especially on emerging technologies.
Creating comics allows us to start a dialog and learn about the views of young persons
By creating narratives about possible futures and societal perspectives on science and technology, concerns and expectations can be identified. Opinions of (future) users and consumers should matter for scientists and engineers. The participatory experience is also valuable for the young person's understanding as engaged citizens.
I: Brain Strips
During the German fall holidays in November 2016, 14 high school students participated in a four days comic-workshop in Freiburg, Germany. The workshop was called “Hirnstrips-Neurotechnologie grafisch erzählt” that roughly translates to “Brain Strips - neurotechnology told with graphic stories.” This workshop was part of a research project within the cluster of excellence “BrainLinks-BrainTools” at the University of Freiburg - a interdisciplinary research institution investigating new biomedical technologies that interface with the brain. As this research topic has far reaching societal implications concerning personhood, autonomy, and responsibility, the project “Reaching Out: Participative Projects and Ethical Discourse on Neurotechnology” was established to foster a dialog between scientists and the public through art/science events.
“Brain Strips” focused on emerging neurotechnologies treating neurological diseases like epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease. The professional illustrator Ludmilla Bartscht worked with students on a story and helped them develop their own comic strips. Two weeks after the workshop, the museum for contemporary art in Freiburg hosted an exhibition of the student’s art for a week. In addition to displaying the comics accompanying commentaries from scientists, philosophers, and patients were displayed. The vernissage was an opportunity for families to see their children's achievement and for the public to learn about the project. The whole workshop was funded by both the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the Medienkompetenz-Fund Baden-Württemberg.
The workshop was divided in two “input” and two “output” days: the first day started with a mix of activities on comics storytelling and brain anatomy and the students talked to scientists and neurologists. On the second day they visited labs that work on topics like hippocampal epilepsy, electrocorticogram, and electroencephalogram for disease diagnostics and treatment. They also visited a lab that develops micro-electrodes for deep brain stimulation to treat Parkinson’s disease, and met with persons that suffer from Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy. The next day started with an ethical role-play on deep brain stimulation and autonomy. The rest of the two days the students developed their stories and drew their comics with the help of Ludmilla Bartscht.
Part of the comic “Mr. Tam-Tam” by Denis Gabenstein. The topic he chooses is a brain area going wild like in an epileptic seizure. The titel Mr. Tam Tam refers to the patient nicknamed “Monsieur Tan” in which Paul Broca first described the brain area responsible for aphasia: the broca area. “Tan” was all the patient could say even if he was able to understand language (reprinted with permission).
The participants expressed interest in science or art, or in both. The group was gender balanced and participants were 14 to 17 years old high-school students from Freiburg and surrounding towns with varying degrees of experience with drawing comics. Only few had difficulties finding a story, developing, and drawing it. Some of the students were very influenced by meeting persons affected by the diseases they learned about. One of these guests demonstrated what happens when his deep brain stimulation is turned off. Another guest talked about his operative treatments that made his epileptic seizures stop altogether. The demonstration of a robot also impressed the students. This is evident in the comics: main characters are mostly persons affected by neurological diseases and robots. Also, seven of the 11 student comics were about epilepsy. This topic seems to be more impressive than other neurological diseases as affected persons can be very young.
One comic called “Eigenleben” told a tragic cyborgian story of a robotic arm taking control over a boy’s body - eventually killing him. One comic called “The Surgery” tells the story of a boy that has to decide if he is going to sign an agreement to undergo brain surgery that could heal him from epilepsy but includes high risks - the inspiration by our guests is evident in this story.
II: Tales from the future: Seas and oceans
In 2016 “Science in Dialogue” (“Wissenschaft im Dialog”), a German national organization promoting public engagement with science, hosted a series of eight science comic workshops (currently, the series is continuing for the year 2017 with ten more workshops). The scientific topics of the workshop series entitled “Tales From the Future” was the future of our seas and oceans, chosen to compliment the science year 2016/17 “Seas and Oceans” proclaimed by the German federal ministry for education and research (“Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung - BMBF”).
The workshops were funded by the BMBF and took place on board the MS Wissenschaft, a river vessel hosting a science-center-style exhibition on the topic of the current science year. During each science year, the vessel tours German rivers, so the workshops took place in different cities across the country. Target audience of the workshops were school classes, which had to sign up for the workshops in advance. Depending on the corresponding class size, the number of participants in each workshop ranged from 20 to 30 students. The age of the students ranged from 12 to 18 years old.
The workshops were designed as half-day events. In the first hour, the students visited the exhibition and were asked to take notes on their observations by answering questions on a worksheet (e.g. “What did you learn about the environmental threats to the ocean?”). Coming back, the students were asked to present their findings, which subsequently were used for a warm-up storytelling exercise. Afterwards, the students were randomly assigned to small groups of four to six members and had to choose a topical focus out of the material collected beforehand and develop a futuristic story as a group. No guidelines were set regarding the scope of the stories - they could depict a dystopian or utopian future world, it could be complete science fiction, or a more realistic future scenario.
A continuous moderation and coaching helped the students with each step, from topic selection to future thinking, up to storytelling and drawing techniques. As the time available for the workshop was very short with only four hours, the explicitly stated goal was not to develop and draw perfect stories and comics, but rather to think about creative ideas and work on notes and sketches. Comic artist Markus Färber was present during the workshop as a coach and had the task of picking up ideas and thoughts from the students to develop a comic book at the end of all workshops. The book is available on the exhibition ship and was also sent to all participating classes.
At the end of each workshop, the teams presented their stories, and one was awarded a "best story" award by a small jury consisting of the moderator, the artist, and one of the exhibition guides. Criteria for judging included the relevance of the topic for seas and oceans, the future-orientation, the creativity of the idea, and the quality of the storytelling. The winning story was displayed in the MS Wissenschaft exhibition.
The topics covered in the stories of the students had a strong focus on environmental aspects, especially the plastic pollution of the oceans. Some scenarios depicted a rather devastating picture of the future (oceans with no marine life left, humans living on islands formed by floating trash), while others presented solutions (robots, in one case even robot-mermaids, cleaning up the oceans). Depending on the age of the students, also politically complex global scenarios or thought-through technical system have been described. The assignment of random teams worked out pretty well after some initial skepticism by the students and encouraged cooperation outside established friend circles, and included the whole class and not only the already previously interested. Feedback by the students was overwhelmingly positive, highlighting the motivating learning environment in the interactive exhibition as well as during the workshop.
Comic thinking - it works!
The two case studies illustrate that the set expectations can be met, either when working with students participating on an individual basis or when working with whole groups of students as an extracurricular class activity. While a multi-day workshop allows for a more in-depth learning experience, the short workshop has also been proven a worthwhile endeavor. By adding the art component through comic drawing, the overarching STEAM approach through comic workshops provides a holistic learning experience and space for dialogue and reflection.
Specifically, the three initial assessments hold true: (1) the workshops did allow us to reach new audiences, where individual students and even whole classes with a low interest in science became active participants, (2) the storytelling and comic creation did allow to dig deeper into the ethical and societal reflection of STEM topics, and (3) the drawing did start a dialog and the results allowed us to learn about the views of young persons.
Philipp Schrögel is a researcher in the junior research group “Science In Presentations” at the department for science communication at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). He also works as a freelancer in science communication. His focus in research and practice lies on participatory and creative approaches to science communication, from science slams to hackathons, science street art or science comics. Current communication projects besides the comic workshop “Tales from the future” are the video-installation “Ocean Shop Window” with underwater footage, turning empty shops into virtual aquariums, and the “knowledge buffet” with scientific presentations during lunch in a sushi restaurant. Philipp Schrögel is a physicist by training and also received a Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.