Comic Relief Helps Explain NASA Science
Who are NASA's Earth and Space Science Explorers?
The middle school students who track weather to study its effect on bursting tree buds. And the scientist studying black holes in distant galaxies. But also the teacher whose class shares Earth science data with students around the world. And the engineer who designs robotic instruments to probe hard-to-reach planets. All of these people are Earth Explorers, Space Science Explorers or both. The Earth Explorers and Space Science Explorers series features NASA explorers, young and old, with many backgrounds and interests.
Unlike many other NASA missions, CINDI (which stands for Coupled Ion Neutral Dynamics Investigation) produces no pretty pictures, just numbers and graphs. And it explores a part of Earth’s atmosphere many people have never heard of -- the ionosphere -- let alone understand.
With no dazzling snapshots of Earth or space to show off, Marc Hairston and Mary Urquhart are faced with a daunting challenge as CINDI's education and public outreach co-leads: Engage students and educate them about a mostly invisible layer of the atmosphere that is rife with complex concepts.
Enter Cindi -- the mostly lowercase version of the mission's uppercase acronym. Cindi, a spiky-haired android space girl, and her two space dogs, Teks and Taks, are stars of a comic book series that just released its second installment. With more than enough colorful pictures to go around, the comic books serve up a hearty helping of knowledge about the CINDI mission and the ionosphere, with a side of humor.
"Science is threatening to a lot of people. And even if it's not threatening, most people have this misconception that 'science is too hard for me to understand,'" said Hairston, who together with Urquhart dreamed up the Cindi character and storyline. "But a comic book is not threatening. It's pretty, it's entertaining, and it's easy to understand. So we can get people to read -- and read all the way to the end.
"It grabs their interest and attention, and once we have that, we can then smuggle an amazing amount of scientific ideas and concepts into their minds."
Even for Cindi, it's no easy task to explain how atoms become ions and what NASA's CINDI instruments do as they fly aboard an Air Force research satellite. The first Cindi comic book -- "Cindi in Space," published in 2005 -- breaks the ice with an analogy involving Cindi's dogs.
Taks is a jumpy dog -- all charged up and full of energy -- because he's missing his tail, much as an atom missing an electron is a positively charged ion. Meanwhile, the calm-and-collected Teks, who represents a neutral atom, has his tail and nothing to panic about. That is until his tail flies off after he chomps on an energy biscuit, similar to how an atom can lose an electron when absorbing a photon of light from the sun.
Cindi's job is to count the number of energized and neutral dogs in space, just as the real-life CINDI instruments measure the concentration and energy of neutral and charged particles in the ionosphere. Data collected by the CINDI mission should help scientists predict when bubbles of charged particles in the ionosphere might interfere with the satellite-based communications and navigation systems that have become an integral part of everyday life.
"The Cindi comic books are a way of making complicated subjects associated with the particular type of space weather the CINDI mission studies seem approachable," said Urquhart, an associate professor of science education at the University of Texas at Dallas.
The first Cindi comic book, which explains how the CINDI instruments work and why scientists are interested in the ionosphere, was targeted at middle school students (though it has found a much broader audience). Hairston and Urquhart identify middle school as a critical time to keep children tuned into science.
"Kids are natural scientists, particularly at the elementary and pre-kindergarten levels, and the trick is not to let that curiosity wither when they hit middle school and puberty," said Hairston, a research scientist in UTD's Center for Space Sciences, the research group that designed and built the CINDI instruments.
Hairston notes that the particular style of the Cindi comics, known as Japanese manga, "is particularly appealing to middle school girls, a group that we really wanted to target since their loss of interest in science is particularly dramatic when they reach middle school." Hairston, it turns out, is a longtime fan of manga and Japanese animation (anime). He's written numerous articles on both and lectures on their educational value and cultural origin.
The second Cindi comic, "Cindi in the Electric Atmosphere," was released in August and is geared toward high school students. It focuses on the various kinds of light of the electromagnetic spectrum and how ions and the ionosphere are formed. A third book, "Cindi in the Solar Wind," is already in the works.
The series is illustrated by Erik Lervold, who was an engineering student before becoming a graphic artist. "So I didn’t have to explain a lot of the science and technical aspects of the comic to him. He already 'got it,'" Hairston said.
Urquhart sees creative education products like the Cindi comics as important to keeping children's interest in science alive through middle school and beyond. But equally important, according to Urquhart, is the teacher's attitude and approach.
"Teachers can play a huge role in fostering their students' natural enthusiasm for science, or sadly, in dampening it," Urquhart said. "When a teacher is confident and passionate about a topic, that shows in the classroom. Students pick up on the enthusiasm (or its lack) and begin to share it."
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> Meet the Next Space Science Explorers
Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies