“You don’t need a lab coat”: transforming chemistry education through imagination and play - Colleen Kelley | S3E5

Dr Colleen Kelley is a chemist and the creator and founder of Kids’ Chemical Solutions, a comic-book based chemistry curriculum that aims to transform chemistry education through imagination and play. We discuss Colleen's mission to make chemistry more accessible and enjoyable for everyone.
“You don’t need a lab coat”: transforming chemistry education through imagination and play - Colleen Kelley | S3E5

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About the Episode

Key Topics

  • How Colleen is making chemistry more accessible and enjoyable for everyone, regardless of perceived math abilities, and the importance of trust and curiosity in unlocking imagination and real learning
  • Why fear is the number one barrier to learning chemistry, and the importance of understanding chemistry to preserve our world
  • How Kids' Chemical Solutions connects chemical concepts to everyday life and allows students to solve mysteries using chemistry
  • How being a grokkist following her joy with no plan led to Colleen’s squiggly career path and her creation of Kids' Chemical Solutions

Recorded 2 March 2023

Episode Digest

Everyone can learn chemistry. This mythology that surrounds it, that it's heavily based in math and that it's hard, everyone gets brainwashed by that.

I'm calling bollocks on all of that. You can be successful with very little math. I have not had math since 1985 and I'm still going.

It's one of those things when everyone says, like in Finding Nemo, "don't swim over there, it's dangerous!" So everyone believes it. And it's been like that for over a hundred years in our education system. Everyone should learn chemistry. And the reason is so that we can preserve our world.

I had a comment from  an educator saying, well these comic books are cute, but they're not going to change anything. And I felt like saying "hold my beer, I'm going to change everything..."

My guest for this episode is Dr Colleen Kelley, who is a chemist and the creator and founder of Kids’ Chemical Solutions, a comic-book based chemistry curriculum that aims to transform chemistry education through imagination and play.

In the opening grab, Colleen’s passion and ambition for chemistry comes through loud and clear. But chemistry wasn’t her Plan A, and in fact there was never really a plan at all.

I don't remember ever having a plan. I just kept doing what I thought was fun. It scared my parents. They kept wondering when I was going to get a job and they still ask me that. They're still wondering when I'm gonna get a job.

Colleen is a first-generation college student. Her squiggly career began in the US Army, who paid for her college tuition. She was put in a department that studied tropical diseases, which she found fascinating despite having no background in biology.

After her time in the army, in which Colleen says she was the worst soldier ever who couldn’t find her way out of a shoebox, she went on to study malaria and tropical diseases. She fell in love with the world of discovery and research and wanted to continue to explore more chemistry, so she headed to Penn State University and dashed through graduate school receiving her Ph.D. in chemistry at the age of 24. It was during this time that she had her first taste of teaching - a night class in medical chemistry for physicians who needed continuing medical education.

She then decided to pursue a teaching and research career as an academic, accepting a Chateaubriand Postdoctoral Fellowship in Strasbourg, France with Nobel Prize winner Jean-Marie Lehn and eventually taking a position as a chemistry professor at the University of Arizona.

At the university, Colleen loved being an educator but chafed against traditional ways of teaching chemistry, which she found frustratingly inaccessible and exclusive for students. Colleen has many thoughts on why people find chemistry so hard, but there’s one reason that stands out most…

Fear. Fear is the number one. When they're afraid of the topic, imagination can't come out of fear. So the first thing I have to do with my class is develop trust and then that trust goes into curiosity. And that curiosity then can go into imagination, and then we can get the real learning done.

Colleen found herself on a mission to make chemistry education more accessible and enjoyable for everyone. She co-authored a series of textbooks for students who wanted to become nurses and who were struggling with how to apply what they were learning in chemistry to a nursing career.

The textbooks were clinically-based and featured fictitious patients in bizarre situations wrapped in a mystery. In class Colleen would ask students to solve the mystery using the chemistry that she had just taught them.

This approach proved to be a big hit with students, and out of this idea would come Kids' Chemical Solutions and its series of comic books in which the characters, who represent elements from the periodic table, collaborate to solve Charlie's Angels-style mysteries.

While the chemistry comic books connected with students themselves, the format proved to something of a head-scratcher for publishers and purchasers, and for a long time Colleen struggled to gain traction in making them commercially viable.

I had given up a couple times because of the fear of not financially being able to support this project without making any income off of it. And the fear of it just being one more grokkist thing that I did and spent thousands of dollars on what went nowhere.

I really just have to think about the lives that can be changed if I continue on. So you take yourself out of it and it's kind of like, you find the strength to lift the car up even though you're afraid. It has that urgency for me, and I've not felt that much urgency about anything really.

I was already intrigued by Colleen’s take on chemistry before our conversation, but I left with an even greater respect and admiration for the care, depth and thoughtfulness of her approach and what she is doing with Kids' Chemical Solutions.

It’s an entertaining, inspiring and refreshingly down-to-earth discussion in which we also discuss the time Colleen invented both a sports drink and a new kind of a perfume, and what it’s like to have a son who is also a grokkist.


Stuff We Mentioned


Audio Highlights

Episode Appetiser - Calling bollocks on the chemistry myth - anyone can learn it! (49s)

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The world of molecules is like a great animated series (52s)

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Feeling Like You Don't Belong? You Might Be a Grokkist (55s)

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Chemistry education doesn't have to be boring - Colleen's comic book curriculum is changing the game (59s)

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Marie Curie: two-time Nobel Prize winner, but still couldn't figure out how to turn off the light in her closet (56s)

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About Colleen Kelley

Dr. Colleen Kelley is the Creator and Founder of Kids’ Chemical Solutions which is a comic-book based chemistry curriculum intended for kids ages 8 – 108. Her journey as a chemist began at The University of Richmond where she received her B.S. in Chemistry. She fell in love with the world of discovery and research and wanted to continue to explore more chemistry. She headed to Penn State University and dashed through graduate school receiving her Ph.D. in chemistry at the age of 24. She was having so much fun doing chemistry research that she accepted a Chateaubriand Postdoctoral Fellowship in Strasbourg, France with Nobel Prize winner Jean-Marie Lehn. Colleen is a first-generation college student who followed her joy of learning, investigating and teaching chemistry. Fast forward 30 years later to the tail-end of her career, Colleen finds herself captivated by the question, “Why do my students think chemistry is SO hard?”

Connect with Colleen

LinkedIn | Website

To purchase the comic books and learn more: http://mcdetectiveagency.org


Interactive Transcript