School & District Management Q&A

xkcd Author Randall Munroe Brings Comics to High School Science Textbooks

By Liana Loewus — March 23, 2016 7 min read
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Randall Munroe, the creator of the popular Internet comic xkcd, which tackles science, math, language, and other lofty subjects with humor and stick figure drawings, will soon have his work featured in high school science textbooks.

Munroe recently published Thing Explainer, in which he uses his signature comic style and the 1,000 most commonly used English words to give simple explanations for complicated subjects.

Now, his publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, will be including some of those comics in its upcoming chemistry, biology, and physics textbooks, to be published for the 2016-17 school year. The comics cover topics such as “The Pieces Everything is Made of,” also known as the periodic table of elements, and “Tiny Bags of Water You’re Made of,” or animal cells.

The publishing company reports it is also working on designing a new series of science programs for the 2017-18 school year with new comics and digital animations of Munroe’s work. Those programs will be aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards, which 18 states and the District of Columbia have adopted.

I had a chance to catch up with Munroe, who briefly worked as a roboticist for NASA, to talk about his foray into classroom curricula and his passion for nerdy science subjects. The below transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

You cover a lot of science and math material in xkcd. Tell us a little about your background in science and your work with NASA.

I did an undergraduate degree in physics, and I sort of minored in math and computer science. I just took a lot of classes in that general area. Toward the end of my degree I also started doing an internship at the NASA Langley Research Center. I worked on 3D virtual reality stuff. The year after that I got an offer to work in the lab. So I did that for a little while as a contractor before switching to doing comics full time. I was there a little less than a year and I worked on virtual reality and robotic navigation.

Is that why you end up drawing about math and science so much in xkcd?

I just write about whatever things I’m interested in, regardless of my actual background and educational experiences. People a lot of the time assume that something I know about physics comes from my physics degree or that if I’m into space it’s because of my NASA background. But what I was working on [at NASA] really had nothing to do with space at all. Space was my personal interest. I just think I read a lot. Some stuff I do draws on the engineering I did with NASA, and some on my academic time, and some just draws on just research I was doing to satisfy my own curiosity.

Why did you decide to get involved in the education realm?

I’d worked with HMH for What If and then Thing Explainer, and knew they had a large educational division. At some point, we were just talking about it, and they said, “Hey, wait minute, this is kind of educational material. I wonder if there’s a way we can make it work together.”

Which of your cartoons for the science textbooks is your favorite?

The one that I had the most fun with was, I did a big tree of life just that’s just how everything is related to everything else. And I really like how my organizational impulse makes phylogenetics really satisfying for me. I like how it lets you organize the animal kingdom in such an objective way. I always have fun figuring out, like, that birds are more closely related to crocodiles than humans, and a sparrow is more closely related to a T-Rex than to humans. I find that kind of comparison really fun.

I also got to come up with new names for all the animals. I called a porcupine a pointy cat. Bats were skin birds. I think that’s one of my favorites of the strange names I had to come up with for these charts.

Why did you decide to only use the 1,000 most commonly used English words in your Thing Explainer drawings?

Originally, I did a drawing I just posted as a comic on my website where I tried to label all the parts of a Saturn 5 rocket using the 1,000 most common words. I was just thinking it would be fun to come up with a diagram where all of the labels were comically simple or sounded silly. I came up with the 1,000-word thing to give myself a restriction that would encourage that.

I found as I was trying to explain it that what’s really interesting is trying explain the difference between hydrogen and oxygen if you’re talking to someone who doesn’t know either of those words. So I have to say, “This is the part of air we need to breathe, and this other kind of air is the kind that’s in one of those big flying skyboats that burned one time.”

That was a really interesting challenge because I had to connect up the concepts and take these ideas and explain them without any of the technical terms. It was unexpectedly fun and I started thinking about what other things I could explain with this restraint.

What’s the educational benefit of using only these words? Is there any concern students won’t ever learn the proper terminology?

We don’t have a shortage of people trying to give definitions for things. I feel like when I’d go through classes I’d much more often be in a situation where there was a word everyone was using that I didn’t know what it meant but didn’t want to admit it. That feels, like, more common to me than the problem of we’re talking about a concept and no one’s ever mentioned the word for it. So often the impulse is to start with the word. When I’m explaining something I definitely have that impulse where I’ll want to describe something but I’ll say, “First let me define a bunch of new terms for you.” I got to put a check on the impulse.

Once you have the concept, eventually you can hook it up to the right words. But for the most part, the entire rest of the educational system does a good job of focusing on that.

How did you choose the topics for Thing Explainer?

A lot of topics I picked because I had an interest in them. Like I started off with the Saturn V rocket—I’d recently been reading a lot about rockets, and had been playing a computer simulation game where you build rockets. It was just on my mind.

I also talked to friends and said what things have you always wondered how they work? Several people independently mentioned mechanical pencils and pens as one thing they wanted to see an explanation of. I don’t know if I would have thought of that.

You know when you have a pen and you click it and the point comes out, and you click again and it retracts? The little mechanism that makes that happen is one of the hardest things I found in the entire book [Thing Explainer] to explain how it works. It’s a funny set of ratchets and gears that lock together in a certain way and they make that motion happen. I was surprised to see that even when I dug into something simple like the little mechanism in a pen, it was some of the coolest ideas and coolest things to explain.

What do hear from teachers who’ve used your comics in the classroom?

I think they like being able to break up the sort of drier, technical material with something that’s surprising or funny.

One of my favorite things is when I have a visual metaphor and I hear from people who are educators or whatever who use that metaphor. I got to talk to Chris Hadfield, the astronaut, and he mentioned I’d written about how fast the space station goes to stay in orbit. I mentioned that if you stand at the end of a football field and fire a gun at the same time that the space station passes over you going in the same direction, the space station will cross the entire football field before the bullet reaches the 10 yard line. The space station is moving 10 times faster than a bullet. He said he’s used that to try to explain to people how just fast you have to go to stay in orbit.

Do you write with kids in mind?

More than anything, I think back to myself before I learned about this. I just think, what was I confused about? Is there a way I can give myself CliffsNotes going back in time?

I grew up reading Calvin and Hobbes, and I remember Bill Waterson talking about how when he wrote about Calvin and his dad, he was thinking about himself as a kid and his dad. I feel like that’s sort of how I think about it. I think about more myself when I was a kid. Also I don’t have experience as a teacher who deals with kids regularly, so I don’t know that would be a helpful way for me to think about it.

Is there a science topic you haven’t yet tackled but want to get to?

I think probably the biggest and most interesting thing that I’ve said almost nothing about, because I don’t know enough about it, is the immune system. It’s just increasingly important in biotech and it’s so weird. It’s like this incredibly complicated mechanism inside us that polices our body and protects us from things that look like threats.

I once heard someone say that when mothers kiss their babies, one of the theories is they’re getting a sample of the dirt the baby has been exposed to, so their immune system can respond to it and help protect the baby. I want to know more about how all that works. It’s this really interesting system working totally behind the scenes in our bodies.

Top Image: Randall Munroe’s version of a headshot

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.