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How Societies and Research Institutions Can Use Comics for Outreach and Engagement

The word ‘comics’ generally suggests superheroes saving the world, a kid with an imaginary tiger friend, or a lasagna-loving cat. Today, comics are increasingly being used to bring science to a wider audience, with studies showing that they can be an effective medium for delivering information to young students as well as adults. Comics have an advantage over other visual media, such as animation and videos, in that they allow readers to learn at their own pace. Science should be widely accessible, and comics are an innovative tool for increasing accessibility and enhancing science communication. Scientific organizations and institutions can use comics to extend their outreach not just among academics but also among non-academic audiences such as children, students, and the general public.

1. To reach out to younger demographics

Many societies and research institutions have a special focus on children in their scientific outreach efforts, at primary, middle, and high school levels. As most children prefer to consume information in the form of images over text, comics can be a valuable part of such outreach efforts. For example, the Royal Society of Chemistry funded a project in which researchers created a comic to increase interest in science among children aged 9-12 years. Another example of a comic with wide appeal is Randall Monroe’s Xkcd, which explores several disciplines such as biology, physics, astronomy, and math; this work has also been featured in some high-school study materials.

See also: A brief overview of TikTok for science communication

2. To generate interest in STEM careers

It was reported that as of 2018, about 2.4 million jobs in STEM were expected to stay vacant and a report by EngineeringUK suggests that there is an annual shortage of about 20,000 engineering graduates to meet the demands. Encouraging more young people to pursue STEM careers can be instrumental in closing these gaps. In addition to informing and educating young students, societies and institutions are taking initiatives to engage with school-age children to specifically interest them in STEM careers. An example of such an initiative is the American Physical Society’s comic book, Spectra: The Original Laser Superhero, introduced as part of PhysicsQuest to get middle school children to stay engaged with science, and Ella the Engineer, an initiative by The Ella Project and Deloitte to encourage young girls to pursue STEM careers.

3. To promoting diversity, inclusion, and representation in science

Several organizations are furthering their efforts to increase representation in science and using comics can be an effective approach. The Curie Society is a graphic novel that highlights women in STEM, celebrating and putting women at the forefront. Going beyond the typical comic style, in 2021, NASA released its own digital interactive graphic novel, First Woman: NASA’s Promise for Humanity. It chronicles the fictional story of the first woman and person of color to set foot on the Moon, based on NASA’s actual plans to achieve this milestone in their future missions. A Spanish version of the comic is also available for better outreach to the Hispanic population.

4. To foster public scientific literacy and health awareness

Comics have a knack for offering a perceptual experience for concepts that are abstract. Other features of comics like communication through visual metaphors and anthropomorphization can make concepts more relatable to readers. This also makes them effective in communicating with the public about scientific or medical concepts. For example, comics have been used for public health education around childhood obesity, as part of patient education for cancer patients, and even to promote cervical cancer screening.

5. As part of education resources for members

Comics already have proven their educational value in fields like medicine and engineering. This makes them valuable for societies that are moving towards repurposing and reshaping their content to enable practitioner members to stay up to date. Comics are an innovative way of sharing bite-sized educational content with high recall. For example, the American Society of Microbiology published several short comics as editorials in its flagship journal.

See also: Unlocking the power of memes for science communication

Beyond the above, comics can be used for simply comic relief like those published by the European Association of Geochemistry or to add a little variety to social media feeds. The European Research Council’s ERCcOMICS uses the power of storytelling through comics as a creative and engaging way to communicate projects funded by the council. An effective form of storytelling, comics can encompass a range of ideas, and they have gained more mainstream acceptance over the years, especially in science communication. This makes them a promising and powerful addition to any communication strategy.

Nisha Nair

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