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Teaching microbiology through visual, artistic, and plot-driven storytelling

“Humans are wired to learn through storytelling,” McKinlay said, but “at some point that's frowned upon, but I don’t think it needs to be”.

Jake McKinlay, an associate professor and artist at Indiana University Bloomington, gave a workshop to ArtLab’s artists-in-residence on scientific visual storytelling. His main sector of research is physiology, and as a professor of bacterial metabolism, he has a goal to change the negative perception surrounding the topic of metabolism, emphasize its importance, and emphasize that it does not have to be a boring exercise of memorization.

McKinlay in the classroom with E. Coli comic
McKinlay in the classroom (Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University)

Thus, McKinlay aspires to “facilitate the contextualization of details into functional knowledge.” By this, he means that though metabolism is an inherently detail-intensive subject, his goal as an educator is to allow his students to think about how those details fit together to do something important. The idea of linking ideas together to form a sequence of events, otherwise known as plot, is where storytelling comes in. With that storytelling, he aspires to make microbiology more approachable.

“To digest and understand is where storytelling comes in. It really picks up on this notion that humans are wired to learn through storytelling,” McKinlay said. “It’s where we all start. It's part of every culture, but at some point, as we grow up, storytelling falls out of the educational process. No more Chika Chika Boom Boom to learn the alphabet—at some point, it has become frowned upon, but I don't think it needs to be.”

McKinlay has already begun utilizing visual storytelling, employing his artistic abilities, in his own classroom. In collaboration with Dr. Katie Kearns, also of Indiana University Bloomington, he has integrated it into an undergraduate course and found that it appears to have a measurable impact on attitudes towards metabolism and might have had a light positive impact on performance after one year of data. The students in their own opinion, also believe it aids their understanding of metabolism.

In the panel below, students are able to learn how E. Coli thrives in different environments, as well as how other bacteria thrive in those environments as well, doing things that E. Coli cannot do. McKinlay hopes that with methods such as this, when asked the question of what E. Coli can do in a given environment, they can pull from the story and the aiding art. Without the aid, many students may pull random memorized facts from the course without truly knowing what E. Coli can and can’t do; however, with a linear storyline, he hopes, students will more easily link all of the information together and arrange it.

Comic art by Jake McKinlay

In speaking about this strategy, McKinlay referenced a study by Jay Hosler, which asks if comic books are an effective way to engage nonmajors in learning and appreciating science. The study found that students showed a statistically significant improvement on the test administered to them after using the comics to learn particularly among those with lower content knowledge at the start of the semester. It also showed improvement in attitudes about biology was correlated to attitudes about comics, suggesting that the comic may have played a role in engaging and shaping student attitudes in a positive way.

Comic art by Jake McKinlay

In his own teaching, McKinlay teaches metabolism through familiar storylines. Using ubiquitous basic plots such as rags to riches, quest, voyage and return, and the hero’s journey, the plotline McKinlay uses for his own comic about E. Coli. These familiar plotlines make concepts easier to digest. He says that even if students don’t know he’s using them, at a subconscious level, the familiarity promotes an extent of understanding which might be harder to achieve via the more common lecture-based plots.

Throughout the workshop, McKinlay also gave the students tips and advice for their own work, getting their work out there, discussed storytelling and content strategies and boundaries, and traded creating techniques with the students. While discussing content strategies and boundaries, he presented the students with questions they should ask themselves as they begin to create their own stories with science.

Comic art by Jake McKinlay

The overarching theme of self-interrogation questioned how far one should stray from precision and actuality for the sake of communication? Will you obey an exact scale when drawing on a molecular scale? In McKinlay’s own intestine drawing below, this intestine is supposed to contain 100,000,000,000 cells per milliliter of intestinal fluid, in addition to mucus and undigested cellulose. And while all of that would be a lot to draw, McKinlay says that there are ways to add layers to in a way, show all of that complexity to not underscore its importance to microbiology. However, personally, McKinely takes a lot of liberties simply because it’s quite hard to fathom how small these organisms are.

SciArtists and storytellers must also ask themselves if they will anthropomorphize their subjects. Giving human traits to these subjects is a simple way to naturally get readers invested. Some artists take liberties to add comically drawn sound-effects like “Doink!” “Pow!” and “Woosh!” to their strips in order to add personality to the scene, while others chose to add faces to their subjects to make a microbe-like bacteria more relatable, and thus possibly increase understanding. Some artists go as far as to create their subjects into human characters with figures and emotions. In one cartoon, Cells at Work, the cells, personified as people, live in a city that is a human body. The city is attacked by pathogens portrayed as monsters. Here they are highly personified. While McKinlay is personally okay with putting faces on subjects, his collaborator argues that we should not convey that bacteria have emotions or make decisions. Therefore artists must ask themselves if they are willing to go to that level of personification for the sake of communication and reader investment.

Aside from weaving stories into lectures, he has also created animations for the University’s Science Fest and has a graphic novel in the works. In the future, he wants to create a coloring book, a storybook for kids, and strengthen his animation skills. In both creating a storybook and tailoring his artwork and lectures towards younger audiences, McKinlay hopes to make microbiology approachable to all. In educating the next generation of SciArtists at ArtLab’s workshop, the same goal may have been sparked in them.

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