UA Professor Creates Chemistry Comic Series

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — From adventures with superheroes and Van Gogh paintings, a University of Arizona professor helps students learn high-level chemistry concepts through a series of comic books .

Professor Colleen Kelley said she was inspired by her students as they were often overwhelmed with the subject, especially once they got to college.

“My quest to find out why all these students thought chemistry was hard and I loved it,” she said.

So she put her imagination to work and started telling stories during her lessons. Her students told her she should write them down because the stories were entertaining.

“They’d laugh, you know, they’d be sitting there reading them and saying ‘hey, that’s really funny,'” she said.

In collaboration with a local former student artist and graphic designer, she put together a series of comics. It’s called Poppi and Ray’s CHEMysteries and dives into different college-level chemistry concepts.

“I want to make it accessible, I want them to understand that it’s not 100% based on math, actually the type of chemistry I teach – organic chemistry and biochemistry, there’s no math, so if you understand musical symbols, you can understand chemistry,” she says.

Working with Tech Launch Arizona, she brought the book to life and had local elementary school students read the comic. At first, she gave the series to students in grades 8 through 10, but found that students in grades 4 through 6 were more receptive to the books.

“I knew some people with fourth and fifth graders, so I said let’s try this,” she said. “It was a nice surprise that when you’re eight you can still learn chemistry.”

In 2020, 5th grader Aidan Kastner was one of the first kids to get the book. He said it was so exciting to learn something he was interested in and it was easier to learn.

“They were very fun and enjoyable because they had these really interesting characters,” he said.

4th grader Dori Kendall and her brother Daniel said learning the concepts isn’t impossible.

“I was nervous not to understand, but I did it,” she said.

Her mum, Bee Schlotec, said it not only prepares for chemistry class, but it’s a way for kids to take a break from screens, especially during the pandemic. She said the books linked chemistry to the real world, which helped them understand the concepts.

“Because they see it all around them,” she said. “If you’re talking about chlorine, he’s a swimmer, so he’s going to know why his skin is itchy when he gets out of the pool.”

Kelley hopes to mass-produce more issues of the comic book series and even create an animated television show.


Phil Villarreal is the real-time editor of KGUN 9. He is also a digital producer and host of “Phil on Film” seen weekly on Good Morning Tucson, Phil moved to KGUN after 17 years with the Arizona Daily Star, where he was a film critic, columnist and journalist. He has written three books: Secrets of a Stingy Scoundrel, Stormin’ Mormon, and Zeta Male. A business graduate from the University of Arizona, he has four children. Share your story ideas and important issues with Phil via email [email protected] or by logging in on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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