- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2003

HUNTINGDON, Pa.- If the drafting table in a corner of Jay Hosler’s office isn’t a clue that he is not a typical biology professor, then maybe the cartoon drawings all over the table will do the trick.For Mr. Hosler, an assistant professor of biology at Juniata College, publishing his work is more than just a matter of putting thoughts on paper. He also has to illustrate them.

For five years now, Mr. Hosler has been teaching scientific principles through comic books. His second series, “The Sandwalk Adventures,” originally issued as five separate comic books, has been compiled into one volume that explores evolution and natural selection through the mind of Mara, a follicle mite living in the eyebrow of Charles Darwin.

“One of the things when you’re passionate about something, especially in science, you want to make an original contribution. That’s where you get published,” Mr. Hosler said. “My thinking with both of these books is I want to contribute something different.”

Different is right.

In “Sandwalk,” Mr. Hosler does more than present the basics of evolutionary thought. He turns the evolution-creation debate on its head. The follicle mites (and yes, we all have these tiny mites living in our eyebrows and elsewhere on our bodies) think Darwin is God and credit him with creating the world. Only by explaining this theory of evolution and the principles of natural selection is Darwin able to convince Mara — not all of the mites are convinced — that he is not God.

Mr. Hosler doesn’t stop at trying to disprove creationist theories. He also takes on some common misconceptions about evolution.

Pointing to a drawing that spoofs the familiar “March of Progress,” Mr. Hosler says:

“In this sequence right here, you see the classic progression of man: the brachiating ape, the stoop-shouldered gorilla, the very first stick or arrow or tool, and then he’s upright. At the same time, what he’s saying is that evolution is not a nice, neat, progressive march. This image, this icon of evolution, is wrong.

“I show this, while he’s essentially explaining that this is wrong. You can do this with images, you can be sort of a wise guy. But you can also incorporate some of these visual things that students tend to get time and time again and help them unlearn them.”

Mr. Hosler originally tackled evolution in his first comic book series, “Clan Apis,” about the life cycle of the honeybee. John W. Wenzel, associate professor of entomology at the Ohio State University, made “Clan Apis” required reading for an entomology course he taught to non-majors, and even used the comic’s discussion of evolution in an advanced biology course.

“One of the great advantages of these comic books is that they’re scientifically accurate. … The students would actually do the reading and learn, in fact learn more, from Jay’s comic books than from reading scientific textbooks,” Mr. Wenzel said.

Since the first installment was published in 1998, two “Clan Apis” chapters have sold out the 2,000 press runs, and few copies remain of the last three chapters. The collected volume has sold some 5,000 copies, many to educators.

“Kids who find it seem to like it,” said Michael R. Lavin, associate librarian for the University at Buffalo Libraries in New York, who has “Clan Apis” among his recommended comic books on a reference Web site for librarians.

“What I liked about it was that it did such a great job of teaching science, but not being obvious about it,” Mr. Lavin said. “The science was just an underlying part of an otherwise interesting story.”

Despite the complex scientific principles discussed, “Clan Apis” and “Sandwalk” are not only for adults. Each series is rife with puns and pimple jokes, the kind of humor that children would find amusing even if they aren’t ready to absorb all of the science.

“There are some things in there that a 5-year-old is not going to get. But in my experience, there’s more than enough there to keep them reading it,” Mr. Hosler said. “And each time they read it, and they’re a little older, they’re going to get a little more.”

Mr. Hosler is far from the first to use comic books as educational tools. For nearly as long as comics have been around, they have been valued as instructional reading.

Will Eisner, a legend in comic illustration, penned the “Joe Dope” series to teach jeep maintenance to World War II soldiers; a series issued by the Federal Reserve taught thousands of children the principles of banking and finance; and illustrated Bible stories, many in comic book form, are staples at most Christian bookstores.

Betty Watson, director of early childhood education at Harding University in Searcy, Ark., said the illustrations in comic books may help engage youngsters who otherwise wouldn’t be interested in science.

“If you had a group of children who read this information from this comic book format, and the teacher followed up by showing other information — used the comic book as a beginning opportunity to learn — then it could be very positive,” Miss Watson said.

Mr. Lavin says comics can stimulate even the most gifted students.

“There’s a lot of us in the field that feel very strongly that this is a tremendous medium and an exciting medium to engage people at the other end of the spectrum, because it really sparks their creativity,” Mr. Lavin said. “There’s no question that the combination of words and pictures can be a very exciting way to tell a story that leaves a lasting impression.”

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