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The Periodic Table: Studying the Elements Using Comics

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Chris Wilson is the technology education specialist at John Thomas School of Discovery, a K-6 science-, technology-, engineering-, arts-, and math-based public school in Nixa, Mo. He teaches 435 students every week and is the "editor-in-geek" of The Graphic Classroom and Reading with Pictures, well-known comics-in-education websites. Wilson also co-sponsors the Hall of Heroes comic book club at his school. He has contributed to several textbooks on literacy, including Rationales for Teaching Graphic Novels (Maupin House, 2010), Teaching New Literacies in Grades K-3 (Guilford Press, 2009), and Teaching New Literacies in Grades 4-6 (Guilford Press, 2009).

Today, he reviews a Wonderful Life with the Elements, by Bunpei Yorifuji (No Starch Press, 2012) for BookMarks.

By guest blogger Chris Wilson

wle.pngI highly recommend Wonderful Life with the Elements as a companion to the science classroom. Our world, everything we know, can be distilled into 188 elements. The very thought is fascinating in its simplicity.

To state the obvious, all persons pursuing a life or interest in science must not only memorize but also have a solid understanding of the periodic table of elements. If we desire to teach our students to be inquisitive about all things, then an understanding of the elements of the universe cuts across disciplines.

As a teacher at an elementary science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics, or STEAM, public school, I am constantly exploring questions about the world with my students. As they ask questions, I ask questions, and together we seek answers. From genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, to the science behind science fiction, from the superhero mythos to vaccines, laboratory created foods, natural disasters, plant reproduction, life cycles, greenhouse gasses, and energy sources, our life is full of inquiry, all based upon these 188 elements.

While I don't expect my elementary students to be able to memorize the periodic table of elements, I find it necessary for me to have an understanding of how these elements work so I can answer questions without contributing to misconceptions. And if Facebook is any indication, there are many misconceptions about science in our world. Slowly but consistently we teachers can embark on scientific understanding for the benefit of our classrooms, our society, and ourselves.

For those of us whose degrees are not in science and whose science understanding is rudimentary—my particular wheelhouse is the "T" realm of STEAM—discussing science can be daunting. Having scientist friends or acquaintances is helpful. I would now argue that a desk copy of the Wonderful Life With the Elements is a must. Classroom copies of Elements would be especially useful for middle and high school educators.

Educators understand that teaching is not just about our knowledge of the topic, although that is critical. We must also have a deep understanding of how to teach effectively so students learn efficiently and increase long-term retention. We have tomes upon tomes to help us teach effectively. Wonderful Life With the Elements transforms the periodic table into a living, breathing visual. By combining scientific information with visuals, students have a chance to interact with the periodic table in previously inaccessible ways. The book makes the periodic table accessible so that students can make sense of the elements and remember the details, allowing them to see the world through the lens of science, even if science is not of particular interest.

Our universe is comprised of 71 percent hydrogen, 27 percent helium, and 2 percent oxygen and other elements, Yorifuji notes in the book. By contrast, the Earth is 34.6 percent iron, 29 percent oxygen, 15 percent silicon, 12.7 percent magnesium, and 8 percent carbon and other elements. Yorifuji's creation offers a way for students to make sense of the science beneath these elemental breakdowns. He explores the elements human beings used in ancient, medieval, and modern times. He anthropomorphizes each element. For example, alkali metals have "floaty, flirty hair" while the zinc family of elements have "volatile, punk hair." Atomic weight is represented by torsos—the higher the atomic weight the larger the body. The legs of each visual representation reflect whether the element is a solid (legs), a liquid (gooey slime) or a gas (bottoms like Casper the Ghost). And so it goes with how Yorifuji represents each element's year of discovery, special properties (radioactive, magnetic, luminescent), and use.

Each element is not only given unique iconography in the periodic table, but each is given its own page with all of the above and other details such as symbol, melting point, boiling point, density, and synopsis. More complex elements are illustrated on two pages. The book comes with a poster, which I would promptly hang on the wall. The publisher has a website of the entire Yorifuji periodic table of elements, which is perfect for projecting.

The comic is a mode of literature in which text and visuals are combined to create a powerful and engaging reading experience. Yorifuji artfully and scientifically uses this mode to enhance the learning of not only science enthusiasts, but even the students who are least excited about the subject.

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