21 March 2011
ByAppeared in BioNews 600
Unique Tales: All in the Mind
By Peter Scott and Dr Beverly Searle
Published by Unique
ISBN-10: 0954125320, ISBN-13: 978-0954125325
When Tim is stuck on his biology homework, his brilliant scientist and inventor uncle has the perfect solution: an invention that allows a teacher to project their thoughts directly into the brain of their pupil. 'Oh, if only' I hear every teacher and science communicator gasp. Wouldn't projecting science messages into children's minds make our lives a whole lot easier? Yes, it would. But, alas, this invention is confined to the pages of a comic published by Unique, the Rare Chromosome Disorder Support Group.
The comic aims to make genetics interesting and accessible to children and young people. Tim is taken on a wild adventure inside the mind of his Uncle Felix to help him grapple with a tricky biology assignment he's been given for school.
Uncle Felix tries to help his nephew by taking him on an imaginary trip deep into the human body. After a short detour into deep space, dinosaurs and the human brain, Tim finally persuades his uncle to focus on the topic of his homework - the human body. He soon finds himself surrounded by a mysterious forest of 'weeds', which he soon realises are human hairs on the surface of the skin.
Uncle Felix aptly explains the relationship between DNA, chromosomes and cells and how DNA carries the information that makes us who we are. He tackles some challenging topics, from how an entire human being can originate from a single cell to the basics of DNA base pairing.
We learn from Uncle Felix that, as we grow and develop, our cells have to divide again and again trillions of times and - each time - the information contained within them must be copied exactly. But, with so many copies, mistakes can happen. Part of a chromosome can be missing, two parts stuck together or duplicated, affecting how our bodies look, work or develop. Luckily, Uncle Felix's unconventional science lesson does the trick and Tim goes away with plenty of ideas for his biology homework.
The value of comics as an educational tool is a hotly-debated topic. Done well, they can foster interest in science, help students remember what they've learnt and provide a means of prompting discussion. But it's difficult to ignore the fact that comic books aren't as popular among children as they once were. Children today rarely encounter them outside of the classroom, choosing instead to dedicate their leisure time to computer games, the internet and television.
This comic makes a valiant attempt to deal with some tricky topics and - in my opinion - succeeds at making them interesting and accessible for children and young people. The comic doesn't assume prior knowledge of cells and DNA. For this reason, I think it has the potential to appeal to a broad age group of children - from the latter years of primary school to the first few years of secondary school.
But with the World Wide Web at their fingertips, I wonder whether most children and young people view comics as alluring enough to encourage engagement with genetics. Perhaps more modern approaches, which use the internet and social media to create dialogue rather than focusing on one-way communication, may be even more effective at engaging young people with this fascinating, yet challenging, area of science.