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Bam! How comics teach science

No Starch Press

"The Manga Guide to the Universe" surveys the cosmos in comics.

Can you really learn relativity from a comic book? The Japanese have been using manga for decades to teach complex subjects, and now Americans are doing it too.

No Starch Press, a San Francisco publishing house, puts out a whole line of manga-style books on math and science, picked up from the original Japanese and translated for the American market. Yes, there's a "Manga Guide to Relativity," as well as calculus, linear algebra, biochemistry and other head-banging subjects.

The plot lines may sound sappy to grown-ups. Usually they involve a cute schoolgirl or schoolboy who's challenged by an equally cute teacher to master a seemingly impenetrable subject. But Bill Pollock, the founder and president of No Starch Press, says the books get the job done, especially for students who are at a crucial age for math and science education.

"We're not out to publish the best manga ever," Pollock told me. "The manga is a vehicle."

Educational comics are nothing new, of course: Classics Illustrated, for example, was delivering comic-book versions of English lit and science class back in the '50s. (I still get the heebie-jeebies when I recall the Classics Illustrated version of "Jane Eyre" that sat in the comic-book box at Grandma's house.) More recently, cartoonist Larry Gonick has been using the comic-book format to explain subjects ranging from chemistry to physics to sex. This year, one of the items on my holiday book list is "Feynman," a graphic-novel biography of the bongo-playing physicist.

But manga books come from a different cultural tradition — the same tradition that spawned Pokemon, Hello Kitty and other Japanese imports that American kids have grown up with. In Japan, there's a manga subgenre ("gakushu manga") that is completely focused on education. These books, which range around 200 pages in length, are the ones that have been adapted into English-language "manga guides."

Japanese researchers have reported that manga books can deliver information in a shorter time and make a stronger impression than conventional textbooks. "Manga's textual hybridity is utilized to promote the readers' effective learning, as verbal and iconographic tests place multiple layers of information in context and project a focused content," Satsuki Murakami and Mio Bryce wrote in the International Journal of the Humanities.

Masaharu Takemura, Kikuyaro, Office Sawa

Panels from "The Manga Guide to Biochemistry" delve into ribosomes and their role in the cell.

"I look at it as a lecture in a book," Pollock said. "It's as if you're in there learning together with this cartoon character."

The lecture can be tough sledding at times. There's no easy way to have a cartoon character utter dialogue like this: "A Lineweaver-Burk reciprocal plot is created by ... finding reciprocals for all the numeric values on the horizontal and vertical axes!" But Pollock says he's seen the manga technique work, particularly for teenage girls, who tend to lag behind teenage boys when it comes to interest in math and science.

"I've always liked the idea of exposing people to something exciting, and higher math is exciting," he said.

In the past few days, there's been a debate percolating over how the genders are portrayed in science education — as seen, for example, in the marketing of "science kits for girls" that focus on perfumery, cosmetics and spa care. Some have raised concerns about manga as well, in part because of the short skirts and ditzy demeanor sometimes exhibited by the female characters. (To be fair, manga boys can be just as ditzy as the girls.)

"Some people think manga is sexist," Pollock said. "The reality is, I've had multiple parents come to me and tell me that their daughters love the books and now they're getting into math and science. ... We may look at things one way as adults — but for kids, it totally works."

STEM education — that is, education in science, technology, engineering and math — has been a hot topic lately. What totally works for you? Do comic books fit into the equation? Whether you're a student or a teacher, a parent or just an interested grown-up, feel free to weigh in with your comics ... er, comments ... below.

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