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Keep on Teachin': Juniata Biologists Explores Comic Book as Educational Text

(Posted December 18, 2008)

Jay Hosler, associate professor of biology, created Wrinkles the Wonder Brain as the intrepid hero og his biology text Optical Allusions.

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- College textbooks are a known quantity. They are big. They are densely written. The approach they take to learning hasn't changed since the Renaissance. Yet, Juniata College biologist Jay Hosler has taken a Renaissance ideal -- art -- coupled it with a postmodern version of literature -- the comic book -- and created a prototype sensory biology textbook that could equally be compared to Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" or "The Fantastic Four."

Hosler, associate professor of biology at Juniata, has recently completed and published (through his company Active Synapse.com) a 128-page chapter of a proposed textbook called "Optical Allusions." The chapter follows the comic hero, Wrinkles the Wonder Brain as he travels back in time and wanders through his own imagination to teach readers how vision evolved.

The comic book's panel adventures are connected by short essays, written by Hosler, providing detailed explanations of such principles as genetics, eye structures, color vision, sexual selection and evolution.

"People who aren't already excited about science find science courses terrifying," says Hosler, who has published two previous biology-related graphic novels, "Clan Apis," about the life cycle of the honeybee, and "The Sandwalk Adventures," which tells the story of a follicle mite living in the eyebrow of Charles Darwin. "There really is no text book out there for sensory biology and I had always thought comics could be quite effective as a teaching tool."

Evidently, so did the National Science Foundation, which awarded the scientist/artist with $46,500 in 2005 to produce one chapter of a proposed larger textbook. The next step in the evolution of the new product will be classroom testing. The finished chapter will be tested at two or three institutions of higher education to evaluate its effectiveness as a teaching tool. If the evaluations prove positive, Hosler hopes to apply for a larger NSF grant to complete a 250 (plus)-page comic book text.

"If information is tucked into an interesting story, students are more likely to hold onto that information and remember it."
Jay Hosler, associate professor of biology

"Test scores in the sciences have been dropping, so clearly the way we teach biology isn't as effective as it could be," Hosler says. "If information is tucked into an interesting story, students are more likely to hold onto that information and remember it."

The textbook is designed to provide a visual contest for learning and comic books are structured to provide more information to the reader. If Hosler is able to obtain a grant to finish the textbook, he envisions that the text could be used in an introductory college class or an Advanced Placement high school class.

"My goal in writing these things is to make it enjoyable for all ages," Hosler says. "There's solid science facts in there as well as puns, gross-out humor and other jokes. It's sort of like Looney Tunes cartoons. I attempted to write it so a son and his father could read it together and enjoy it."

The lighthearted tone and style of the comic panels will extend to the connective science essays as well. At least one reviewer describes the writing style as "snarky," and each essay is roughly three to four pages (including even more Hosler illustrations). The remaining chapters of the proposed text will tackle the remaining four senses: smell, taste, hearing and touch.

Hosler is a neurobiologist, who earned a doctorate in biology from the University of Notre Dame. He has been cartooning since he was a teenager and has published two award-winning comic book series since starting his academic career at Juniata in 2000.

Hosler's first comic book series, "Clan Apis," followed the life-cycle of a honeybee from birth to death. Hosler's neurosensory research, which is based on how honeybees perceive and remember odors, was the inspiration for "Clan Apis." The series was well-received by comic book fans and science writers.

Hosler's next series, "The Sandwalk Adventures," told the story of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution as told through the thoughts of a follicle mite imbedded in Darwin's eyebrow. Hosler's work on the series received positive reviews from media outlets as varied as The New York Times, Science and The Comics Journal. His work has been covered extensively in the media including mentions by the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, National Public Radio and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The "Optical Allusions" prototype has already attracted media attention, earning a review in Science, the magazine for the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Hosler's earlier comic books have been used in secondary schools and college classes to teach principles of biology. A 2006 story in the Los Angeles Times detailed how science-based comic books by Hosler, Jim Ottovani and others have made inroads in science education in California classrooms.

The book will be printed by ActiveSynapse, the company that printed his two previous books. The company Web site is www.ActiveSynapse.com.



Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.