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Researchers Educate, Entertain Teens with Third Issue of Space Science Comic Book

What does an orange-haired, comic book superheroine have in common with a science experiment orbiting the Earth on board a satellite?

Plenty.

Both share the name CINDI, shed light on discoveries in space science and are the creations of researchers at The University of Texas at Dallas.

CINDI comic book cover

UT Dallas researchers have produced three comic books to help middle and high school students understand space science. The newest is "Cindi in the Solar Wind."

The experiment called CINDI — the Coupled Ion Neutral Dynamics Investigation — was designed and built by a research group led by Dr. Rod Heelis, director of UT Dallas' William B. Hanson Center for Space Sciences. Launched in 2008 and currently flying on an Air Force satellite, CINDI gathers data on the dynamics of the upper atmosphere, a region called the ionosphere.

Extending from about 45 to 600 miles in altitude, the ionosphere is where a significant fraction of the atmosphere consists of electrons and charged particles called ions. In this region, radio signals can be reflected or scattered by those particles. Disturbances in the ionosphere can disrupt radio signals used for communications and navigation, such as GPS. The data CINDI gathers can help scientists predict when and where these disturbances will occur. 

Part of the NASA grant that supports the CINDI project is used for science education outreach, particularly to middle and high school students. In 2005, Dr. Marc Hairston, a research scientist at the Center for Space Sciences, and Dr. Mary Urquhart, head of the Department of Science and Mathematics Education, published a comic book — starring a character named Cindi — to help explain the science of CINDI to students.

sattalite image

This illustration depicts the CINDI mission satellite in Earth orbit. UT Dallas scientists designed and built CINDI to gather data about the upper atmosphere.

Recently, Hairston and Urquhart published the third comic in the series. Urquhart said all the issues have been well received, and teachers use the materials in their classrooms. All three comics are available to download for free. The first two issues also are available in Spanish.

“People aren’t afraid of comic books,” Hairston said. “You put a science book in front of them and they get scared. But a comic book is friendly. We’re basically trying to smuggle the science in through the comic, and we seem to do a fairly good job of it.”

The first comic in the series, “Cindi in Space,” introduces Cindi as an android spacegirl whose job is to catch, count and characterize different types of robot spacedogs. The story parallels and describes the science mission of the actual CINDI instruments, which are collecting and characterizing the types of particles in the ionosphere.

“The first comic was designed for sixth- through eighth-graders, because that’s the level at which Earth science is taught in Texas,” Hairston said. “For older students, it also has some more advanced concepts in chemistry, like charged and neutral particles.”

The comics are meant to be engaging and entertaining, but what’s most important is to get the science right.

Dr. Marc Hairston,
research scientist at the Center for Space Sciences

The group published the second issue, “Cindi in the Electric Atmosphere,” in 2010. Again featuring the heroine and her spacedogs, this comic explains how the sun’s radiation interacts with Earth’s atmosphere to create the ionosphere.

The second Cindi comic is especially helpful for teaching topics such as the electromagnetic spectrum,” Urquhart said.

In the most recent installment, “Cindi in the Solar Wind,” the orange-haired spacefarer is on vacation with her canine companions to “surf” the solar wind. The solar wind is a steady stream of plasma (high-energy charged particles and electrons) that continuously flows out from the sun in all directions.  During a cycle that lasts between 10 and 12 years, the sun is periodically very active, ejecting lots of plasma, and relatively quiet, with a minimum of activity.

In the comic, the characters are near the sun when it burps out a blob of high-speed plasma called a coronal mass ejection, and one of the dogs is swept away. The trip to retrieve her companion takes Cindi to the heliopause, the boundary of the solar system where the solar wind stops. The adventure gives Cindi a chance to educate readers about how the solar wind interacts with the magnetic fields of Earth and the other planets. 

“We based the story on a real coronal mass ejection that happened in September 2011,” Hairston said. “As we were writing this issue, we also had to update the science based on data coming back from the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which had reached the heliopause in 2012.

“The comics are meant to be engaging and entertaining, but what’s most important is to get the science right.”

Christine Rittenhouse MA'13 donned a Cindi costume at outreach events when she was a UT Dallas student.

 

Alumna Brings Science Experiment to Life

Like mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, UT Dallas alumna Christine Rittenhouse has a day job. But when she was a master’s student at the University, her super-woman alter ego was a high-flying role model for young girls interested in science.

Rittenhouse recently hung up the bright orange wig and spandex costume she donned to play Cindi. Although no longer in costume, as a physics teacher at Liberty High School in Frisco, Rittenhouse does retain Cindi’s superpower: helping students understand science.

Rittenhouse earned a master’s of arts in science education from UT Dallas in 2013. As a student, she volunteered to bring Cindi to life at outreach events for students and science teachers.

“I agreed to play Cindi because I thought it was a great opportunity to be a science superheroine,” Rittenhouse said. “Usually, when kids think of a scientist role model, they think of a guy in a lab coat with a bubbling beaker. I think my favorite part of dressing up as Cindi is that she's such the opposite of that stereotype of a stuffy scientist. She’s young, she's got a crazy hair color, and she wears brightly colored spandex, all while researching space weather!”

Rittenhouse said her experiences with the Department of Science and Mathematics Education were eye-opening. She volunteered for the Women in Science Alliance’s Women in Physics camps for middle and early high school girls.

“At this age in particular, girls start worrying about how they are perceived by others — especially by boys,” Rittenhouse said. “Many of them are hesitant to show their interest in science. I hope that my role as Cindi helped show them that it's OK to be yourself, and that pursuing your interests, despite what others may think, is endlessly rewarding."

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

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