Kids' Chemical Solutions

Capturing Early Eager Learners with Chemistry Comics

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Capturing Early Eager Learners with Chemistry Comics

The practice of using case studies in higher education has been an effective tool for teaching everything from medicine to law. These case studies are based on ‘real life’ scenarios and are often framed as a mystery to solve. Dr. Colleen Kelley has embraced the use of case studies in her chemistry courses for the past few decades. She has used these in graduate level courses in medicinal chemistry and most recently in her 100-level course at UArizona.

Dr. Kelley’s students have found that the case studies enriched their understanding of chemical concepts and connect those concepts to everyday life. This led Dr. Kelley to ask the questions, “Could we use case studies, framed in an age-appropriate manner, to teach a much younger audience?” and “Can early eager learners master chemical concepts from carefully scaffolded chemistry mysteries?” She wanted to find out, so she began creating a series of chemistry mysteries in a comic book format for students ages 8 to 12.

About "The M.C. Detective Agency: Chemical Solutions Required"

The M.C. Detective Agency: Chemical Solutions Required is a series of comic books that teaches chemistry to kids ages 8 – 108. This multi-episodic series envelops a cleverly concealed chemistry curriculum with the stories of twins, Poppi and Ray, who solve mysteries using chemistry. These sibling sleuths have many adventures, including traveling back in time to rescue the Radium Girls, attending a modern day rock concert to save a vanishing Van Gogh, and swimming in a bottle of Chanel No. 5 to find the hiding aldehydes. The readers eventually discover that M.C. is Marie Curie, hence the names Poppi (Polonium), Ray (Radium) and Granny Eve (Marie’s Curie’s youngest daughter).

Hover over the image to the left to scroll

The twelve mysteries included in the graphic novel scaffold the sequence of learning objectives found in a 100-level chemistry curriculum. The characters in The M.C. Detective Agency are by design not human and instead look like the molecules or elements they represent.

“I did this so that all kids could connect with the characters, regardless of gender or race, making this graphic novel truly inclusive,” said Kelley. She adds that another reason the characters look like the elements or molecules they represent is to get early learners used to chemical symbols.

Red and Rusty

“What I am discovering in my research is that a key to mastering chemistry in high school or college is to introduce chemical symbols to kids close to the same time that they are introduced to musical symbols, learning music, or learning basic math symbols, like the division symbol. Chemistry can be thought of as the same as learning music – the symbols tell a story and it takes time to understand, get comfortable, and to use the symbols to tell that story.”

“What I really liked, what I thought was fun, ….really fun, was calculating the number of protons, neutrons, and electrons and the atomic mass.”


4th grade student, Tucson, AZ public school

The first four mysteries were piloted with a group of students ages 8, 9, and 10. Dr. Kelley instructed parents to be ‘hands off’ and allow their children to read the mysteries much like they would read any comic book. “I didn’t want the comic books to be thought of as homework or something that would be graded. Instead, I wanted to see what each child could learn just by enjoying the mystery and the characters within the stories.” What she found amazed her and now she is convinced that there is something there. “I had a book-club by Zoom with each student just to chat about each mystery. They would tell me how to calculate the number of protons, neutrons, and electrons in an atom, how to write a formula for a complex ionic compound, and how the structure of the atom is ‘cloud-like’. More importantly, they would tell me that all of this was ‘fun, really fun’.”

What’s next for the M.C. Detective Agency?

“We are in the process of analyzing and coding these Zoom videos as preliminary data to support submission of a grant proposal. I am excited about the possibility of changing chemistry education by the introduction of chemical symbols to early eager learners ages 8 – 12!”