Classroom Teaching Guide


Jan 21, 2018

Both HowToons volumes are collections of comics, strips and stories that have appeared in various locations since their debut in the early 2000s. The volumes feature dozens of DIY projects that are aimed at later elementary and middle schoolers and use ordinary household materials. HowToons feature the brother and sister team of Tucker and Celine, and it’s their adventures that drive the discoveries and builds.

Tools of Mass Construction is broken into eight sections: Play, Tools, Energy, Arts & Crafts, Math, Science, Engineering and Design & Process and features projects and short stories and explanations for each, ranging from air pressure rockets to a monkey’s fist knot and a slightly more complicated Gami-Bot, which is a simple “jitterbug” type robot that combines origami and a motor. The stories feature a multitude of art styles that adult comic fans will enjoy seeing, but won’t get in the way of student understanding or enjoyment.

Featuring a few less projects than Tools of Mass Construction, [Re]Ignition is more of a traditional comic book story with builds that are necessitated by events in the storyline (such as the homemade flashlight) rather than Tucker and Celine’s imagination. The story of [Re]Ignition takes Celine and Tucker away from the idyllic setting of Tools and places them in a “world” that introduces their parents (scientists, of course) and peril: an attempt to calm climate change – jump starting volcanic eruptions – goes bad and knocks out all power on earth. The catastrophe is so bad that Tucker, Celine, their parents and others take shelter in their suspended animation tubes. The kids wake up at some point in the future to find their parents missing and a limited energy supply remaining. The story (and projects) starts up from there as Tucker and Celine go on the hunt for their missing parents in this weird, future world.

While Tools of Mass Construction has zero content that might raise an eyebrow, [Re]Ignition does have some harrowing moments for the kids, overlaid by the larger concept of missing parents. While the story does have a happy ending, some of the threats the kids face are somewhat intense. It’s a well-written comic.

As mentioned earlier, while Tools is a collection of projects and topics, the builds of [Re]Ignition are story-based, and centered around the concept of energy – its use, alternative forms, and electricity generation. Again, all the builds use materials that are easy to source, if not already in the classroom.

On the plus side, the books are written by comic book writers as well as Dr. Saul Griffin, an MIT-trained PhD and Ingrid Dragotta a designer who oversaw the tested all the projects. The concepts and builds are sound, and the illustrated instructions are helpful both for students and teachers attempting it for the first time. While it’s clear in Tools, [Re]Ignition clearly shows that the kids are a blended family and the mother is not white. Kids of all different ethnicities are shown in Tools making the projects. And each volume has text pieces about the ideas behind the builds and the larger concepts.

For Classroom Use: Given the collected nature of the collections and projects, the best approach to using HowToons in your classroom would be a non-traditional way, rather than tackling them like alternative textbooks.

The easiest way to integrate either HowToons volume into your classroom would be to treat them as a la carte “lab” books that you can pick and choose from according to the topic at hand. Most of the builds are two to three pages in length, which include a short introduction of the problem, the parts list, and a schematic that includes step-by-step instructions. They’re easy and most importantly, non-threatening to students or teachers trying them out for the first time.

For example, in “A New Spin on Things” from Tools of Mass Construction, a brief history of Thomas Davenport’s direct current motor is given, followed by a large drawing of the version of Davenport’s motor the students can build (with all the parts identified and their use explained). This is followed by a 12-panel comic page with each panel being a step in the construction with an explanation of what the different parts are doing. In this sense, Tools of Mass Construction is a terrific resource for quick demonstrations or quick class builds of devices that will bring a concept to life in the science classroom. Full disclosure – the “Bending Light” demonstration in the book that demonstrates total internal reflection (a fundamental of fiber optics) is easier to understand and set up than the classic demonstration often used in high school physics.

While [Re]Ignition can be easily used in the same a la carte manner, the strength of the second volume comes in its story, as each build plays a role in the story, from the initial marshmallow shooter to the potato battery, and the final potato chip can electric generator. In that sense, [Re]Ignition can easily be adapted into a complete unit on energy. Each chapter of the story stresses a specific part of the larger energy picture, which builds to a larger theme through the entire storyline.

In addition to the story and instructions, the book has a full energy glossary (perfect for vocabulary work) in the back, along with essays and diagrams about energy use and production both in the present and the future. The storyline also lends itself to crossovers with language arts and discussions about plot, characters and themes.

Another, but by no means final, use of the two volumes would be as the foundation for a school’s STEAM/STEM Club. The materials can be acquired for a little (or zero) outlay of cash, and the builds span all skill levels, from figuring out a better version of shooting rubber bands by hand to a miniature, but functional wind turbine. While Tools of Mass Construction would allow for club members to pick and choose their projects based on interest, [Re]Ignition could easily be used as a semester-long blueprint for a club, with one project being built per week.

Any way you use it, Dr. Griffith and the HowToons team maintain an active web presence, and are easily accessible for help or other suggestions. Finally, has gotten into the subscription box scene, and along with individual subscriptions, offers Class Kits which include 16 short magazines along with enough materials to make selected projects, including Stomp Rockets, Origami Robots, Art of Flight and Science of Bubbles.


The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA & Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth

Synopsis: To look at them, you might miss that these two volumes are connected. Written by different authors, but drawn by the same art team, The Stuff of Life starts the story of Bloort 183 a scientist from an asexual alien race that’s threatened by disease. To ensure that they do survive, Bloort has been charged with learning the fundamentals of human DNA and evolution and explaining it all in clear, easy to understand language so that the planet’s leader (who’s a little dim, but asks good questions) can understand it.

The back-and-forth manner of storytelling through the two volumes is very effective, as the leader of Bloort’s planet (and his offspring, Prince Floorsh 418) predict and ask the same questions the reader may have, allowing Bloort to explain the topic at hand in a different or deeper manner.

In The Stuff of Life’s five chapters and the six chapters of Evolution, Bloort tells a clear but detailed story beginning shortly before the start of life on earth and spanning the ensuing millions of years. The content covers ground that would be found in high school and entry college level biology courses. The books tend to be information dense, but at the same time, clearly illustrate and explain the topics at hand. The Stuff of life handles sexual reproduction tastefully with no nudity of any kind while Evolution stays firmly on the scientific road without any wavering into the controversies that can surround the topic, or be brought up by parents when students are studying evolution. This is Bloort explaining what he found in his investigation of earth. Bloort wasn’t interested in human controversies.

For Classroom Use: As mentioned above, while The Stuff of Life and Evolution are graphic novels, they’re also close cousins to textbooks, and can easily be adapted as such in your classroom, either as a complete text or chapter by chapter as needed. Students who prefer visual explanations of concepts will especially like the books as they offer both text explanations through dialogue and visual representations as part of the story.

ELL students will most likely find the books as challenging as a biology text, but will gravitate towards these over texts, thanks to the illustrations. As such, the books can be used by students to create their own visual vocabulary of key terms and concepts as they move through the information. While their illustrations will most likely mimic those found in the book to begin, they will gain confidence in their understanding and abilities to create their own illustrations as they progress through the book.

For specific examples, we’re going to use Evolution, but the approaches that are discussed for that volume can be used for The Stuff of Life as well.

Graphic Organizer – pages 12-13: Students can complete a pre-made or develop their own graphic organizer to explain Darwin’s four conditions that must be met for natural selection to occur.

Summary Activity – page 18: Students can explain how bacteria resistance develops and progresses through generations of bacteria, creating antibiotic resistance among certain strains of bacteria.

Timeline – starting around page 27 and continuing: Students can (either on paper or with any number of apps) create a timeline of the evolution of life highlighting and explaining milestones in evolution and their effect of what came after. If using Evolution as an alternate text, this can be a unit-long, summary project.

For more of a challenge, students could be asked to make a timeline of extinction events throughout time, listing the animals and other species that were lost at each.

Venn diagram – page 29: What’s “alive” and what’s not? What do things that are alive have in common with things that are not?

Posters – page 40: Use this as a launchpad for making posters for each period mentioned in the diagram and larger history of life. What was the dominant lifeform? What was the dominant characteristics of the period? For a more pop culture spin, have your students create “Parks” based on each period (skipping Jurassic – use that as an example). Ask your students: If you had to create a theme park based on a specific period what would you want guests to know about it? What attractions would be there for the guests to enjoy?

This activity could lead to a gallery walk of the various Parks with students creating note sets based on the Park Guides explaining how special their park is.

Comparing and Contrasting – page 117: Students should draw examples of homologous and analogous features in at least three different species and explain the similarities and differences.

Your own Speciation – page 70: following the example Bloort uses with the Orbi, students will create their own life form and move it through a different speciation event that they will explain using the terms and concepts from the text to that point.

Biography: Each volume introduces the major players in each field. Combining with the Suggested Reading and other resources, students can produce a short biography of the individuals that expand the view beyond what was mentioned in the book.

These are just a few examples that could start anyone off with Evolution. Again, given its similar structure, similar examples could easily be used with The Stuff of Life.

Both books have thorough Suggested Reading lists as well as illustrated glossaries which could be used or adapted for any number of activities or exercises as well, depending upon class ability level.


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