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Comics teach physics with laser precision
July 17th, 2012 1:32AM

With the fiftieth anniversary of lasers in 2010, Spectra, a new superhero appeared on the horizon to teach middle-school students the physics of lasers. Since becoming “a living ‘laser,’” Spectra, really a middle-school student named Lucinda Hene, has been visited by the spirit of physicist Irnee D’Haenens, tangled with a black hole, and battled a demon which overheated a swimming pool.

“Lasers are used in so much research--every aspect of physics. Once we change the villain, we can teach every aspect of physics,” said Rebecca Thompson, the physicist who created Spectra with Kerry G. Johnson.

The stories sneak the lessons in, but pair them with activities that help Spectra in her mission, including using drinking birds to learn magnetics, molding dough to learn evaporation, and Hershey Kisses to learn about metal conductivity.

“Teachers are, at first, a little skeptical … but once the kids start reading it and what they’re spouting back is actually right, we get more orders,” Thompson said. “Teachers like the idea of making it not similar to eat your broccoli, brush your teeth.”

It’s now distributed to 13,000 classrooms. The American Physical Society, which distributes the comics, “can’t keep up with the orders. We’re only capped by funding now.”

Thompson wasn’t into comics and science fiction herself, but has immersed herself in those worlds, as well as young adult literature, to find ways of reaching kids. Her investigation of comics and SF has given her a newfound love of the genres, she said.

“People tend to give kids what they think kids would like without doing research. We do do the research to know what middle-school students like,” she said. Thompson noted that with the next book, the character interactions will be more dramatic, a byproduct of feedback from readers in the target audience.

Thompson also sought advice with creating the character, to make sure middle-school girls would “buy into this world” and into physics. The folks at girlwonder.org helped Thompson keep the character away from pink and "fully clothed," with strong characters and realistic situations to draw female readers in. The result is to make Spectra a regular girl with laser powers, Thompson said.

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