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Comics in the classroom a serious teaching tool, says APSU professor

March 26, 2001

Humor, and particularly the comics, can be a great teaching tool, says Dr. Stan Dunagan, assistant professor of geology.

Using comics prompts students to think in new ways, Dunagan says. It has worked so well he's presenting his ideas at the 50th annual meeting of the Southeastern Section of the Geological Society of America in Raleigh, N.C. April 5-6. More than 700 geoscientists and teachers are expected to attend.

His presentation is called "Tracking Student Conceptual Perceptions and Critical Thinking Skills with Geologically Themed Cartoons."

Use of cartoons in higher educational settings typically has centered on the political and social sciences, where students analyze political satire and current issues. Dunagan's talk, however, will demonstrate how scientifically themed humor can be used to determine how students perceive a concept.

Dunagan developed the idea after finding a geologically themed comic in a medical journal. It showed six men on a small island. The men have paddles, as if they are rowing the island through the ocean. One of the men, a king, says to one of the paddlers: "I'm not interested in your geologic opinions, Smallwood, and if you know what's good for you, you'll keep paddling."

Dunagan says the comic was a perfect introduction to the day's topic. "We were talking about plate tectonics and how the earth's crust moves," he said. "I brought the cartoon to class and asked the students what it was Smallwood said to the king and what geologic concepts were involved. Their answers surprised me."

Although most students responded correctly, others gave explanations that showed they may not have understood the concept.

"I realized I could use cartoons to see how the students were thinking, to see what concepts they understood," Dunagan said. "It's a stealthy way to figure out what they're thinking, but in a non-threatening way."

He then offered extra credit to students who brought in geologic-themed comics. The response was overwhelming. He now has a folder full of such comics. One geology student even drew his own.

"That's good, because if a person can produce a cartoon, they have to understand the scientific concepts behind the cartoon they are drawing," Dunagan said.

The geology professor believes the use of comics in class could be effective for younger students as well.

"Even grade school teachers can use this idea," he said. "The basic principle is the student is still learning and it's not passive learning. It requires creativity on their part, like a puzzle they have to figure out."