Why Comics and Graphic Novels Like ‘Maus’ are Effective Teaching Tools

ChE Teaching Professor Luke Landherr creates STEM comics that effectively engage students and improve their understanding of complex concepts.

This article originally appeared on Northeastern Global News. It was published by Ian Thomsen. Main photo: Luke Landherr has helped create comics to help teach science to students of all ages. Photo by Adam Glanzman for Northeastern University

Hillary Chute’s academic career was transformed by “Maus,” the serialized graphic novel that won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for its story of a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust.

“I read ‘Maus’ in a graduate seminar when I was getting my Ph.D. in English,” says Chute, a Northeastern distinguished professor of English and art + design whose work has focused on comics and graphic novels. She has written and edited several books exploring the form, including two centered on “Maus,” and she started writing columns for The New York Times Book Review in 2018.

Chute’s vocation has helped her appreciate the power of comics and graphic novels to connect with kids, helping them make sense of their own circumstances and the larger world around them.

“There’s something really important about kids being able to see images of people like themselves, and that includes people who are struggling with issues of identity,” Chute says. “Kids feel empathy reading graphic novels. They feel not so alone when they see people who are having similar experiences. And I think that the power of visualizing something and the effect it can have on kids is really key.”

Chute says she still finds herself explaining—“mainly at parties with people I meet here and there”—that comics go far beyond the superhero genre.

“Comics are about everything,” she says. “In the case of ‘Maus’ I was so fascinated that there was this powerful story about the Holocaust, and so interested in the question of why this kind of story in this kind of form works so well.

“What I’m interested in is how comics can address themselves to important contemporary issues—about what it means to have an identity that’s accepted,” she says. “And what it means to be a person who feels heard and feels seen in today’s society.”

Proof of the form’s effectiveness is offered by Luke Landherr, a distinguished teaching professor and associate chair for undergraduate studies in chemical engineering at Northeastern. Under the pseudonym Dante Shepherd he has helped create STEM comics to encourage interest in math and science at all levels, from K-12 to universities and adult learning.

“I started making comics as a way to try to help my students grasp the difficult concepts,” Landherr said at the Boston Kids Comics Fest, which drew about 1,000 visitors Saturday to Northeastern’s Curry Student Center. He was selling copies of his comic series, “PhD Unknown,” at an exhibitor’s table promoting his engineering education research group, Science The World, which is home to dozens of comics covering data analysis, gene therapy, refrigeration cycles, momentum transfer and other complex topics.

Read full story at Northeastern Global News

Related Faculty: Luke Landherr

Related Departments:Chemical Engineering