Using Manga to Spark Interest in STEM

Manga has grown in popularity in recent years among young adults. The Japanese comics and graphic novels dominated last year’s Circana BookScan graphic novels sales charts.

The IEEE Women in Engineering group decided to use manga’s popularity with young people as a way to encourage girls to consider a career in STEM fields.

WIE held its first competition last year to find the best-written manga that centered around a character WIE created: Riko-chan, a preuniversity student who uses STEM tools to solve everyday problems. The competition, which was supported by the IEEE Japan Council and the IEEE New Initiatives Committee, was open to all IEEE members and student members. They could submit multiple original stories individually, in teams, or on behalf of a preuniversity student.

Out of 43 submissions from around the world, six winners were chosen.

The winning manga stories are available to read online.

Explaining how blockchain and aerodynamics work

One of the winners was IEEE Member Carolyn Sher-DeCusatis, who teaches software engineering at Western Governors University, in Salt Lake City. Her areas of interest include physics, semiconductors, and computer programming. WIE has published her two winning comics on its website.

Sher-DeCusatis says she entered the contest because she enjoys encouraging youngsters—especially girls and young women—to pursue a STEM career and to show them how great the field is.

She has a lot of experience writing fiction because it’s her hobby. This is the first time her work has been published.

“When I saw [IEEE WIE] was looking for stories about a young woman who was solving problems with engineering, I thought that it was right up my alley and that it would be fun,” she says.

Hoping to connect with young readers through a Pokémon-inspired card game, Sher-DeCusatis’s first comic, Riko-chan: Cybersecurity Engineer, centers around two of the title character’s classmates who are concerned whether a rare trading card used in their favorite game is authentic.

Riko-chan uses blockchain technology to help verify the card’s authenticity. People use blockchains to keep records of transactions and exchanges of data without relying on a central authority. The system is designed to use cryptography to protect information from being altered or stolen.

The idea for Sher-DeCusatis’s second comic, she says, came from a personal experience she had while volunteering for IEEE.

“Through the organization, I’ve helped [preuniversity] teachers conduct hands-on activities in local schools,” she says. “One of the classrooms I went to didn’t have materials to teach students about STEM subjects, so the teacher taught a lesson on aerodynamics using paper airplanes.”

At the end of the lesson, students had to build a paper plane and throw it at a target. The experience inspired Riko-chan: Aeronautical Engineer.

While walking through a forest, a paper plane suddenly lands in front of Riko-chan, nearly hitting her. Her friend, who also was in the forest, had built the plane and explained to Riko-chan that she hadn’t intended to hit her; the plane was supposed to land farther away. Riko-chan uses her knowledge of aerodynamics to show her friend how to improve the plane’s design.

Sher-DeCusatis says she hopes readers can identify with Riko-chan.

“I think having diverse representation in media, like books, comics, and graphic novels, will help bring more kids into STEM,” she says. “Fiction reaches our hearts, and when young people read stories about someone who looks like them, they can say: ‘That could be me.’

“It’s really important to excite students from a variety of backgrounds about engineering,” she adds, “because it’s vital to the future of STEM to have a lot of different voices contributing.

“So much of our world is based on technology, so we need to have a lot of voices to shape its future.

“I also think it’s fun and exciting,” she adds. “That’s why I’m still doing it after all these years.”

Confronting climate change and cybersecurity threats

The other four winning comics cover artificial intelligence, climate change, and cybersecurity.

Riko-chan and the Perfect Circuit, written by IEEE Member Lais Lara Baptista, follows the character as she and a friend try to repair the old lights in her grandmother’s house. The two ask an online AI circuit-design program for directions on how to repair the lights’ outdated circuitry.

“I see Riko-chan as a powerful motivator,” says Baptista, a full-stack developer based in Brazil. “I hope my comic inspires girls to see themselves as problem-solvers, capable of mastering the world of STEM.”

High school student Julia Griffin wanted her comic to encourage youngsters to protect the environment. Her mother, IEEE Member Denise Griffin, submitted her story, Motion Detected, on her behalf. In the story, Riko-chan and a friend are able to escape being hit by a car while crossing a busy road. They notice that the pedestrian crossing sign was obstructed by a branch from a 100-year-old tree. To improve the road’s safety measures without damaging the tree, the girls install a motion detector that sets off a flashing light to notify drivers when people are crossing the street.

“A love for the world around us can motivate young minds to pursue STEM and solve some of the world’s biggest challenges: environmental issues,” Griffin says.

Maira Ratnarajah, author of Life of Our Beautiful Earth, stressed STEM’s role in confronting the climate crisis in her comic. Ratnarajah is a high school student in the United Kingdom. IEEE Member Kit August submitted the story on her behalf.

In Ratnarajah’s comic, Riko-chan sees a poisonous cloud in the sky and works to reduce the carbon footprint humans leave on Earth.

“STEM skills and knowledge can help engineers design renewable energy systems and study how climate change affects our ecosystems,” Ratnarajah says. “Manga, like the one I wrote, can motivate girls to pursue STEM to develop green technologies.”

The final manga entry, Riko-chan: The Science Solver, was written by Devidas Kulkarni, an IEEE graduate student member. It focuses on the importance of cybersecurity. In it, Riko-chan’s friend Reizei discovers that his cellphone has been hacked. Riko-chan is able to track down who did it.

Submissions for this year’s manga story competition are now being accepted. Check out the rules and deadlines.

If your organization would like to support the competition, contact the WIE staff.