Do comics help as a STEM learning tool? Northeastern professor’s study aims to answer that question

STEM comic strip panel.
An educational comic by Luke Landherr and Monica Keszler explains the history of comics. Landherr (drawn in the top panel) is doing research on how effective comics are as a STEM learning tool.

When Luke Landherr was in grad school, they needed a creative outlet. So they turned to their love of comics. A lifelong reader of the genre, Landherr (who uses they/them pronouns) decided to try creating their own.

The result was “Surviving the World,” a daily online photocomic published under the pseudonym Dante Shepherd. “Surviving the World” ended up lasting 10 years and became so popular that when Landherr began teaching, students recognized them from the series. 

In the final strip, Landherr — wearing their signature white lab coat and Red Sox hat — left readers with a more inspiring message, urging them to find the “great potential” in the world. Now, Landherr, a Distinguished Teaching Professor with Northeastern University’s College of Engineering, is doing that by unlocking the potential of comics as a learning tool. 

The National Science Foundation awarded Landherr a grant to examine this in one of the first studies of its kind on whether comics help as a visual learning tool. Landherr will create a series of comics for a core introductory chemical engineering course that will be used at five partner institutions, as well as Northeastern. Landherr will then look at grades as well as concept testing to determine if student understanding and engagement improves when comics are used.

Luke Landherr, Northeastern College of Engineering Distinguished Teaching Professor and Associate Chair for Undergraduate Studies, is unlocking the potential of comics as a learning tool. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“I’m really trying to develop a much larger scale analysis,” Landherr said. “It’s really fun to make these (comics), but no one wants to do the analysis. There’s tons and tons of actual STEM comics that are out there, but no one’s actually really digging into where the potential is (and) what are the best approaches. … There’s a lot of questions that remain unanswered. I get to have the fun of making the comics, but I also get to actually have some potential long-term impact as well.”

Comics are a popular form of entertainment dating to the 1940s, Landherr said. But societal backlash in the 1950s led to a watering down of the genre. Over the last 20 years, the tides shifted back with more people viewing comics as educational tools. But most of the focus has been on K-12 education.

“I think it’s fair to say this is the first real study of its kind on this scale in STEM, especially at the undergraduate level,” Landherr said. “It is kind of crazy to think about how large publishing is right now in graphic novels for kids, but then when those kids get to college, everything they’ve had for learning or enjoyment, we no longer use.”

Early indications show that comics may be effective for learning, especially in STEM. It’s something Landherr has seen firsthand. During their time creating “Surviving the World,” Landherr connected with other comic creators that led to a regular gig contributing comics to the Chemical Engineering Education Journal. 

Monica Keszler, Landherr’s former student who graduated from Northeastern in 2018, works with them as one of the illustrators of these comics. Keszler connected with Landherr when she was at Northeastern and they were looking for an illustrator. She then had Landherr as a professor. Keszler, now studying for her Ph.D. in Germany, has seen the benefit of these comics as both a student and illustrator.

“When I’m looking at a textbook, I’m always flipping directly to the pictures,” Keszler said. “You just want something that you can grasp onto when you’re drowning in new concepts and to have something … like a comic makes it a lot more memorable. When we’re really young, we learn things by song, like the alphabet. I think this is a really similar concept.”

Schools around the country and world use the resulting educational comics. Many have won awards and a popular comic on fugacity was even used by a city prosecutor for a court case in Phoenix. Landherr also uses these comics in their courses to teach individual concepts. They also had students make comics themselves. When they did, the average exam grade went up by nearly 20 points.

“I enjoy a lot of what the potential is in comics,” Landherr said. “There’s an unlimited canvas. … This grant will allow us to make a series of comics all the way through a singular course as opposed to just making single comics to focus on a topic here and there.”

Having comics in a STEM class is often a first for Landherr’s students, but they find them helpful. For Helen Koukoulas, who graduated from Northeastern in spring 2022 with a bachelor’s and master’s in chemical engineering, the comics opened up her creative side and helped her better understand the concepts in engineering, both of which she said help her in her role as a chemical engineer for a skincare company.

“Engineering is a very technical and science-based field. But it requires a lot of creativity that I feel like was left out of other classes,” Koukoulas added. “At the basis of engineering is problem-solving. We’re really a company’s problem-solvers. To handle those issues that other departments can’t handle requires a lot of creativity and you have to have a mastery of the concepts of engineering. You’re also really hands-on once you’re in the industry and everything gets a lot more visual. Having that impressed upon me and highlighted in professor Landherr’s classes … turned on that creative light in my brain that then became an approach in a lot of the things I was doing.”

Not only that, but students said it makes Landherr’s classes more accessible. Gillian Audia, who graduated from Northeastern in 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and biochemistry, took two courses with Landherr and found the comics meshed well with her learning style as a student with ADHD and offered a good alternative to reading textbooks to memorize information.

“There’s just something about this comic that worked really well,” Audia said. “For me, visual and physical learning styles work really well. I’m more inclined to read a comic than a huge wall of text. … One method of learning isn’t going to work for all students. Having that flexibility in teaching styles helps support all sorts of students. And I think that’s the big goal of education, to help prepare students, no matter their background.”

Erin Kayata is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at Follow her on X/Twitter @erin_kayata.