Comic Book Translates Space Science for Teens
New Installment in Cindi Series Explores Disturbances in Earth's Ionosphere

Complex science can be captured in comic-book form — a fact two UT Dallas researchers set out to prove five years ago, and are doing again with the second installment of a comic book series aimed at high-school students.

Dr. Mary Urquhart

Dr. Mary Urquhart

Associate professor Mary Urquhart and  research scientist Marc Hairston created the comic books to help explain the science behind NASA’s CINDI mission built at the UT Dallas William B. Hanson Center for Space Sciences.

The book’s brightly hued heroine, Cindi, takes students on a high-tech journey explaining how changes in the Earth’s ionosphere may help scientists accurately predict space weather disturbances in the ionosphere.

Such disturbances can disrupt satellite-based communications such as global positioning systems in wide use by everyone from military specialists to drivers with GPS modules in their cars.

The character’s real-life namesake, CINDI (which stands for Coupled Ion Neutral Dynamics Investigation), is a NASA-funded package of plasma instruments flying on the Air Force’s C/NOFS (Communication/Navigation Outage Forecast System) research satellite.

Dr. Marc Hairston

Dr. Marc Hairston

Launched in spring 2008, the CINDI instruments study the composition, temperature, density and direction of flow of the ions and neutral particles in the upper atmosphere—anywhere from 400 to 800 kilometers above the Earth. These data are used to understand how the sun’s radiation interacts with the Earth’s atmosphere to create disturbances and irregularities in the ionosphere.

Much of the source material is heavy-hitting science for the average kid. But their prior success with the first comic, Cindi in Space, aimed at middle-school students, encouraged Urquhart and Hairston to target high-school students with the newest installment, Cindi in the Electric Atmosphere. The comics can be downloaded from the UT Dallas website.

“We’ve received very positive feedback from teachers, and we’ve had tens of thousands of downloads of the first book from our site,” Hairston said. “We want to make science accessible and fun, which is why we chose this format for our educational outreach.”

The $10 million research project is jointly sponsored by NASA and the U.S. Air Force, and public outreach and education are key components of the grant. Launched two years ago, CINDI was recently approved by NASA for an additional four-year extended mission.  CINDI comics have also been promoted nationally on the NASA website.

When Hairston and Urquhart started the project in 2005, they planned to create something that would interest middle-schoolers, an age at which students typically lose interest in science studies.

“Many students get their last exposure to Earth and space sciences during middle school,” Urquhart said. “Cindi, as a character, was also designed to interest girls in science during these same grade levels that just happen to be when many girls turn away from science.  We want to encourage similar scientific curiosity in older students.”

The second comic book discusses more complicated physics topics, and is targeted to high school students. The narrative explains how atoms become ions and how ultraviolet light from the sun creates the Earth’s ionosphere.

“As scientists, we have an obligation to explain what we’re doing and why it’s important,” Hairston said. “We can always do a better job of bridging public’s understanding of science and technology.”

        The brightly hued heroine, Cindi, is back with an updated look. Cindi in the Electric Atmosphere is available  on the Cindi website (pdf file).The original comic had a primarily middle-school audience. , Cindi in Space remains available online (pdf file).

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].