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Collaborator Spotlight: Creating Science Cartoons with SERP Institute

Through collaboration with science education experts, the Strategic Education Research Partnership (SERP) Institute generates innovative, scalable solutions to schools‘ most pressing problems. We spoke to David Dudley, illustrator and content developer at the SERP Institute, about what inspires him to create illustrations that are both entertaining and educational!

What's one thing LabXchange users should know about the SERP Institute?

SERP runs on collaboration (hence the P in SERP: Strategic Education Research Partnership). We bring together three kinds of experts to address K-12 schools’ most pressing problems: researchers who study education; practitioners (school teachers and administrators) who work directly with K-12 students; and designers skilled at incorporating the insights of researchers and practitioners into engaging, effective materials. Beginning with challenges identified by teachers and staff at the school district level, we innovate scalable solutions, then put the resulting work online free of charge.

What should LabXchange users know about your materials?

Each of the hands-on activities, videos, animated interactives, read-aloud dialogues, discussion prompts, and content-rich stories and comics in the SciGen Dashboard can be used independently; but they’re also organized into coherent units for teachers seeking days or weeks of interconnected material on a certain topic. Thorough teacher notes make classroom implementation easy. The SciGen Dashboard also includes more than 60 Teacher Tune-ups—brief, conversational nuggets of content review for busy teachers.

An illustrated human and hippo falling through the air, demonstrating the effect of weight and inertia on acceleration.
Why do objects with different masses fall at the same rate? Because gravitational mass and inertial mass are directly related. Illustration from a SciGen Teacher Tune-up on gravity.

What is the SERP Institute's vision for science education?

We design our materials to serve a wide range of students, deepening the understanding of “high achievers” while also courting and supporting students who might not initially think of themselves as “good at” or “interested in” or even “giving a rat’s fanny about” science. Scientific ideas are most engaging when they’re framed as answers to relatable, motivating questions. By balancing personal engagement with requisite standards, student inquiry with instructional guidance, and rigorous challenge with intelligent fun, we can help all students get the most out of their science education.

What's one fun fact about your organization?

We get to collaborate with lots of brilliant educators and researchers! Well, that’s fun for me, anyway—and we strive to make it fun for everyone who uses our materials. For example, working from research on disciplinary literacy in science led by Jonathan Osborne of the Stanford Graduate School of Education, we made a website that adapts formal academic research into accessible, humorously illustrated news-you-can-use for grade 4–8 science teachers. This Reading to Learn in Science (RTLS) site is all about how teachers can improve their students’ learning of science content by improving their ability to interpret science texts. The site focuses on two main questions:

  • What’s the pedagogical basis for emphasizing literacy development in science education?
  • What specific tips and tools can teachers put into play on Monday morning to help enhance their students’ disciplinary literacy?
An adult talks to a child about science misconceptions next to an alligator with a science textbook for its head.
This illustration from SERP’s Reading to Learn Science website accompanies tips on how to activate students’ prior knowledge (and address their prior misconceptions) before they tackle science texts.

Who are your personal scientific inspirations?

My best friends growing up were the children of UC Berkeley chemist Ken Sauer and his wife Margie Sauer, who was brimming with information about natural history. Science was woven into daily conversation in their house, and there was always a chrysalis in a jar on its way to butterflyhood, or a slime mold in a petri dish extending pseudopods to gobble up a meal of oats. Science felt relevant to everything, and entertaining to boot.

When I was in my 30s, Ken introduced me to his colleague Angelica Stacy at Berkeley’s College of Chemistry. I worked on her high school Living by Chemistry course, developing illustrations and cartoons and helping to edit preliminary drafts of some of the student materials. In addition to being an expert in materials science, Angy has a passion for pedagogical research and for equity and diversity in STEM, so working with her was the perfect preparation for working at SERP. The chair of SERP’s board of directors, Bruce Alberts, is another working scientist committed to K-12 education. His fingerprints are on many of the life science units in the SciGen Dashboard.

What is the first science experiment you remember performing?

Hmm. Well, I boiled red cabbage to make an acid-base indicator for a science fair in 4th or 5th grade. That was interesting, but I was really just following instructions.

A real effort to inquire into the nature of things for myself? I don’t know if this counts, but one of my earliest memories is of standing on a dock by a lake and being puzzled by the fact that one moment I was seeing the sky and trees reflected in the lake, and the next I was seeing the pebbles, weeds, and minnows beneath the water’s surface. I couldn’t perceive both at the same time, even though I was looking in the same place. Through trial and error, I figured out that I could make my perception snap back and forth between the two overlaid scenes by turning my attention to specific objects in each scene—a certain cloud in the reflected sky, a certain rock under water.

Of course, I had no formal conception of optics—of how our focus changes as reflex and volition vie for control of the intrinsic muscles of the eye, or of how angles of incidence and reflection determine where a reflected image is strong or weak. But playing and struggling with my senses made an impression that later made learning about light and vision more exciting.

A diagram showing how the angle of reflected light off of a surface and focus of the eye affect how vision works.

I like having more scientific context, now, for what was going on. But I also like remembering how arresting the phenomenon was when nothing about it was easy to explain, and it felt like maybe I was the first person ever to notice how odd it was to be alive! I imagine everyone has moments like that, whether etched in memory or not. Encouraging students to notice—or to remember—the strangeness of things is one way of getting them interested in science.

What motivates you to continue creating content for science education?

A strong grounding in STEM serves all students, whether or not they go on to specialize in STEM. On top of the intrinsic pleasures of learning about the natural world, a good science education empowers students to deal more effectively with the social, economic and civic world in which they must make their way, and the technological, medical, and environmental issues that will concern them throughout their lives. On all these levels, it’s a privilege to be able to help children get the most out of their education.

Finally, what's your favorite science joke?

I love a good science cartoon, and combining pedagogy and playfulness in cartoons is one of my favorite parts of my job. Ideally, to get the joke is to understand the content. Here’s a cartoon that I hope hits the mark; I made it for a discussion of significant figures in a high school chemistry project SERP is developing, which will teach chemistry in the context of climate change.

Two pigeons talking on a sidewalk, discussing a cluster of pigeon poop splats: "Amazing precision, Larry! Nice and close together. But you've got to work on your accuracy. You haven't hit a single car yet."
Written by
LabXchange team

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