Solution Overview

What is the name of your organization?

Scion Comics

What is the name of your solution?

The Prodigy: Equity in STEM Through Diverse Comics

Provide a one-line summary of your solution.

Making STEM education fun, inspirational, and accessible for Middle-graders of all genders, through comic book stories driven by diverse characters.

Film your elevator pitch.

What specific problem are you solving?

In order for someone to believe they can achieve something, they must be able to envision themselves achieving it.  And, in order for their friends, family, and colleagues to believe that someone can achieve something, their friends, family, and colleagues must be able to envision that someone achieving it.

Over the course of their educational and professional careers, women and non-binary individuals are especially susceptible to the perils of disenfranchisement in STEM.  There are many causes for this — loss of interest, lack of role models, social norms and stereotypes, and lack of recruitment for these demographics, to name a few of the most prominent.  We believe that by creating accessible, targeted, fun educational media with inspirational characters, we can dispel stigma, provide supplementary on-ramps to counter the myriad off-ramps, and capture the imaginations of girls around the world.  Time and time again, it has been shown that role models matter because they enforce the fact that something is desirable and achievable.  STEM role models for women are seldom highlighted in media to the degree that their male counterparts are; this is especially true in fiction, where characters such as Tony Stark, Doc Brown, or Prof. Farnsworth dominate public perception.

We believe that additional educational offerings that students would actively choose to fill their free time can help keep them engaged, both inside and outside of the classroom; further, accessible educational tools that students can use at their own pace are needed to fight inequitable access to quality education.  Current offerings, however, are paltry.  They tend toward earlierstages of education, or lack character-driven narratives, and they especially lack relatable non-male characters.  While there has been an increasing in publication of more educational books that highlight women in STEM targeted to younger readers, these tend to be more of the historical variety.  They teach girls what has happened but do not say what can be; in addition to education, we also need science fiction that can inspire girls as easily as current science fiction offerings inspire boys.

What is your solution?

We present The Prodigy, a superhero comic series that teaches concepts in STEM, with a focus on engineering, featuring a gender-diverse cast and an inspirational female protagonist.  In The Prodigy, Eva Adams AKA The Prodigy, must use her understanding of science and engineering in order to foil a sinister plot in the university’s robotics department.  In the pilot (“The Power Of Invention”), Eva (and the reader) must grow their knowledge of algorithms and computer science in order to uncover the surprising reason why a professor is hellbent on deploying a dangerous AI system, and stop him from doing so.

The Prodigy builds upon our previous experience writing The Scion, a superhero comic that teaches science, specifically physics, that we hope to pilot in schools this summer and release this year.  Example pages can be found here.  Like The Scion, The Prodigy teaches visually with minimal use of equations.  The Prodigy assumes no previous knowledge on topics and covers topics pedagogically, with each chapter building upon the last.  For readers to understand the entire story, they will also need to understand the educational content.

Unlike most other educational comics and despite its fantastical tone, The Prodigy is a character-driven story aimed at Middle-grade readers, with more serious tones and more advanced material.  It will be written to be engaging as a novel, something that readers will actively want to pick up even if not to study.  The Prodigy serves two important purposes — first, to provide accessible educational resources to students, beyond the classroom, to promote more equitable learning; and second, to provide more gender diversity in the space of inspirational fictional superscientists.  Even as superhero offerings grow to be more gender-inclusive, this character trope is typically dominated by male characters; “The Prodigy” aims to break that mold.  

We emphasize that The Prodigy is not The Scion with a coat of paint, but rather will cover complementary topics.  We hope readers will immerse themselves in both stories.  They will take place in a shared universe with shared continuity, and some characters will make appearances in each series.  

Some of the diverse characters that readers will meet beyond the protagonist include Patricia McClair, a seasoned professor of physics and a caring mentor; Jillian Nycole, a celebrity scientist in the mold of Neil DeGrasse Tyson/Carl Sagan; Elena Proctor, a pyromaniacal chemistry professor with a disregard for safety; Drew Roberts, an AI researcher seeking to benefit humanity and himself, and Reese Compton, an inscrutable math genius and frenemy.  Concept art of these characters can be seen here.

As a complement to The Prodigy and The Scion, we plan to create a vibrant online community with blog posts from STEM academics and practitioners, both to tie the book concepts to the real-world and to provide supplementary exercises for students and/or teachers.  If the initial offering is successful, we hope to create tie-in animations and interactive digital games that feature the characters and scenarios from the book to further students’ learning.

Who does your solution serve, and in what ways will the solution impact their lives?

The Prodigy is an entertaining superhero story aimed toward middle-/high-schoolers; primarily in the 11-18 year range.  Though written with impact on non-male readers in mind, the books will be written to appeal to all genders.  Readers who would pick up The Prodigy are preteens and teens excited by superhero stories, graphic novels, and comics and manga.  By targeting this audience, we are in contrast with similar titles that typically target a younger audience.  We further believe “The Prodigy” will have crossover appeal with older readers who are fans of superhero comics.

Conceptually, The Prodigy is presented as an intuitive introduction to topics in technology and engineering, beginning with algorithms and computer science, and requiring no prerequisite knowledge.  Motivated by the fact that students in STEM classes are sometimes held back by mathematical equations and technical details, The Prodigy seeks to teach advanced topics in a visual, intuitive manner.

We envision several likely reader profiles for The Prodigy.  The first profile is that of a student who is just beginning to study high school computer science — still a rarity in U.S. curricula!  The curious student would pick up the book (from a classroom copy, library, or personal purchase/gift) either on their own or to follow along as the topics are covered in class.  The second profile is that of the advanced student; these students likely lie in the younger section of our target age bracket, but are especially curious, and want an accessible guide for learning more advanced topics in their spare time, especially focusing on engineering applications that are not often covered by the K-12 curriculum.  The third profile is that of the older, adult superhero fan who already reads comic books, and is looking for a well-written superhero comic, and are curious about the unique concept that “The Prodigy” affords.  The final profile is that of girls and non-binary children looking for superheroic, aspirational non-male characters in STEM.

Beyond maintaining interest in STEM for non-male readers, The Prodigy can serve an additional important purpose — challenging stereotypes.  While there is dropout in matriculation rates for girls in STEM, they also receive less encouragement and recruitment in the sciences. If The Prodigy becomes a well-known IP, it could also serve as a cultural piece that can help redefine these norms.

In short, we expect The Prodigy’s impact to be educational, gap-filling, inspirational, and convention-challenging.

There has never been a more perfect time to publish such a project.  From a public appeal perspective, interest in superhero stories is at a peak, with wide demographic appeal.  More importantly, however, this book fills an important need.  In today's post-covid era, reports of difficulty with student engagement are on the rise, especially in cases of distance learning, which could have effects on disenfranchisement rates.  The Prodigy provides a means of engaging students by providing something they would pick up even in their leisure.  The Prodigy is not an educational device competing with entertainment for students' attention, it is both.

How are you and your team well-positioned to deliver this solution?

We are uniquely qualified to write this book.  We already have experience in developing over 70 pages of The Scion, during which we have fine-tuned the process of teaching STEM concepts through action.  Beyond that experience, as a team, we bring expertise that makes each of us well suited for writer and artist roles.

Andrew Spielberg is a robotics researcher at Harvard University focused on democratizing robot technology for the masses.  He is also a recent PhD graduate from MIT; where The Scion was sponsored in part by the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund.  He also studied comic book writing as an elective during his studies.  He has published nearly thirty research papers, has taught professional, workshop, and university courses on robotics, and has given talks and written in venues accessible to the general public, such as MIT EmTech, TechCrunch, Wevolver and ACM XRDS.

Tristan Sito is a Toronto-based artist and a designer with a history of drawing comics and manga and whose research at McGill University focused on spatial narratives through graphic novels.  He has a webtoon and multiple self-published projects, including Battle Bond Royale and Ride or Die.

Our network of collaborators consists of engineers and designers, both in research and in industry, as well as science communicators who can provide additional consult and guest essays for this project.

Which dimension of the Challenge does your solution most closely address?

  • Support K-12 educators in effectively teaching and engaging girls in STEM in classroom or afterschool settings.

In what city and state is your solution team headquartered?

Cambridge, MA, USA

What is your solution’s stage of development?

Prototype: A venture or organization building and testing its product, service, or business model, but which is not yet serving anyone

Please share details about what makes your solution a Prototype rather than a Concept.

So far, we have produced around 70 pages of The Scion and are currently iterating based on feedback from limited tests with educators and students.  We also have market research from teachers indicating that they would use the comic as a teaching tool.  Thus, we have demonstrated the concept, though we have not yet moved on to larger-scale testing (that is slated for this Fall).

Why are you applying to the Challenge?

Although we have made significant progress on developing our first project, The Scion, and anticipate a 2023 release, we see an award as vastly accelerating our ability to produce The Prodigy by comparison.  Creation of The Scion involves many components — on one hand, it requires creating characters, worlds, and an engaging book, on the other hand, it involves interweaving teaching in a way that is easily understandable and digestible by the target audience.  Both this latter aspect, and our relatively unexplored but rapidly approaching productization of The Scion are both challenges that will be amplified as we transition to The Prodigy.  We crave 1) Support in creating principled ways to run trials at scale in order to produce educational content in a more data-driven way, based on what works in various subdemographics of our target audience, 2) support in dissemination of the product, and 3) ideation in ways to leverage technological solutions and trends to expand The Prodigy’s reach.  We believe both the MIT SOLVE mentorship as well as the vast network that Tiger Global Impact Venture’s team and portfolio would  provide would allow us to maximize the realized potential of The Prodigy.

Supplemental to that, additional funding to support this project will be helpful in three ways.  First, stipends would provide us the freedom to spend significantly more time dedicated to writing and production of The Prodigy.  Second, it would allow us to contract/hire additional staff to accelerate production tasks and build an online platform and presence.  Third, and most important, it would allow us to think forward about ways we could expand the brand.  

More concretely, we see the expansion possibilities of The Prodigy as a modernized version of The Magic School Bus’s expansion, which moved from picture books to cartoons and video games.  We realize that the way in which media is consumed in the U.S. and around the globe is rapidly changing, as more and more of the younger generations consume content from nontraditional media, including social media, online videos, and streaming channels and platforms.  Additional funding would allow us to expand The Prodigy brand to other types of content that resonate with sections of the target audience, including short-form videos for social media, long-form videos for streaming and/or online video platforms such as YouTube, or interactive applets or video games.  We see this as an inevitable eventual evolution, as these types of content can enrich the visual means by which physical and mathematical concepts can be explained, both by making explanations more dynamic and giving consumers the ability to explore.  Further, free or bundled dissemination on online platforms and services will allow us to reach more people globally, and those facing the largest inequities who may not be able to afford or publicly access the physical or online comic book product.

Who is the Team Lead for your solution?

Andrew Spielberg

How is your Team Lead connected to the community or communities in which your project is based?

We are currently planning to pilot trials of The Scion in Boston area middle and high schools this upcoming Fall, in order to receive feedback on its teaching and engagement efficacy; we envision the path forward for The Prodigy to be similar.  We will begin by working with students in local schools, seeing what does and does not resonate with them, and iterate on the comic based on their feedback.  We will prioritize piloting in schools from all socioeconomic backgrounds, ensuring that the product especially works for those most vulnerable to disenfranchisement.  From there, we would scale The Prodigy to a national and then a global scale.

Team lead Andrew Spielberg is a robotics researcher with degrees in applied physics, electrical engineering, and computer science, and experience in game design and comic book writing.  Being a very interdisciplinary field, Andrew’s robotics work has given him a background in many areas of engineering, including circuit design, mechanism design, materials science, simulation, artificial intelligence, and more.  This background, along with his experience teaching to both students and professionals, make him well-suited to plan and execute lesson plans taught through sequential art and story.  He also has a deep network of collaborators at top universities including, for example, MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Cornell, Northwestern University, ETH - Zurich, and EPFL, who can provide feedback, contribute, and promote the project and online community.  

We especially realize the risk and potential pitfalls of a project designed specifically for non-male consumers being run by two male creators, and hope to bring on more gender diverse creators from our networks as part of the team.

More About Your Solution

What makes your solution innovative?

The Prodigy, like The Scion, is a unique concept.  To date, The Scion is the only teaching graphic novel targeted toward middle-/high-schoolers that treats its story and characters as first-class citizens.  The Prodigy, in particular, will be a comic and IP that will be written specifically and uniquely to promote inclusion across genders.

In addition, The Prodigy puts an emphasis on eye-catching illustrations and beautiful, full-color panels.  Finally, rather than exist as a graphical collection of cursory facts about science, The Prodigy presents a deep, pedagogical dive into the fundamentals of nature; its topic progression mirrors that of popular textbooks, making it suitable as a teaching tool or accompaniment to science classes.

Primary existing competitors to The Prodigy typically fall into two camps.  The first camp includes competitors that target the middle-/high-school audience in a graphic novel format, but do not incorporate a story.  The second camp includes books that leverage a story-driven graphic format, but do not target middle-/high-schoolers.  Both of these camps contain successful entries, which we read as a good sign for the success of The Prodigy.    Further, we note that story-driven educational books have historically been most successful, making The Prodigy ripe to address an undertapped market.

What are your impact goals for the next year and the next five years, and how will you achieve them?

The Prodigy: The Power of Invention fills a unique niche as the educational computer science comic targeting a more advanced readerbase, filling a competitive vacuum and piggybacking off the current mainstream success of superheroes.  As a precursor, we have performed two rounds of market research surveys to test the viability of the comic version of The Scion as a teaching tool.  The first round was performed as the first scenes were being written through Survey Monkey; the second round was performed over social media (teacher groups on Facebook).  Reception was overwhelmingly positive, and we believe will allow us to get teachers to try The Scion as a teaching tool in classrooms, and that this should extend to both paper and digital versions of content.  

Our primary goal over the next year are to write and release the first volume of The Prodigy, developing it with the community (emphasizing non-male readers) in order to maximize its efficacy and impact.  We will aim to accelerate the pipelines based on what was learned from The Scion and go from concept to completion within a year.

In the next five years, we hope to generate a combination of comics, short-form (~1 minute) and/or long-form (~20 minutes) videos, and/or games or applications where students can explore scientific concepts interactively in a character and story-driven setting.  Initial offerings will be in computer science but will eventually branch off to other topics.

We would disseminate the comic in print and e-book worldwide (initially in English, eventually translated).  We will accompany the release with a blog that discusses more real-world applications of concepts taught in The Prodigy and the classroom.  That blog would feature posts from us and STEM practitioners and researchers around the world.

Short-form animations would be available free on sites such as Youtube and/or social media and explorative apps would be hosted free on the web.  For longer-form content that is more resource intensive such as full-length animations and games, we would seek revenue through streaming service deals (animation) or mobile App Stores/Steam sales (games).

The exact form of the product we produce will depend on our final partners and market research.

How are you measuring your progress toward your impact goals?

We will aim to combine statistical-feedback with interviews and ethnographic studies.  The goals of these studies will be to gauge both enjoyment/engagement as well as comprehension. The latter is particularly important, as it will allow us to optimize the pedagogy.

In future surveys, we will ask teachers (and students) if use of our content improved test scores (and by how much), enjoyment, how much they pick up the content in their spare time, and if it improves student attention and engagement (at a premium after two years of quarantine).  Ethnographically, we will observe whether students are enjoying the content and which aspects are confusing in order to iterate and improve it.

Describe in simple terms how and why you expect your solution to have an impact on the problem.

We aim to challenge stereotypes held by boys, girls, and non-binary people about people other than men in STEM, and create inspirational and aspirational role models for girls.  Meanwhile, we also hope to create an attractive solution for teachers, one that teaches while entertaining students, maintaining interest while teaching pedagogically and touching upon ethics, emerging technologies and relatable character development of characters in STEM.  We defer readers to previous answers where we have discussed this in more detail.

If your solution is tech-based, describe the core technology that powers your solution.

This solution is primarily not technology based, although we envision future offerings (games, animations, etc.) to explore a rich array of multimedia options.

Which of the following categories best describes your solution?

A new application of an existing technology

Please select the technologies currently used in your solution:

  • Audiovisual Media

In which US states does your solution currently operate?

We are ready to pilot in Massachusetts

In which US states will your solution be operating within the next year?

As we move beyond the pilot, we plan to publish and disseminate online and in all states.

Your Team

What type of organization is your solution team?

For-profit, including B-Corp or similar models

How many people work on your solution team?

Our team is currently two members, Andrew Spielberg, part-time, and Tristan Sito, contract.  Moving forward, one or both of us could move to full-time work on this project.

How long have you been working on your solution?

We have been working on The Scion for slightly over two years; it is part-time right now so it has been slower than it would have been full-time.  I believe, if worked on full time, The Scion could have been produced in 3-5 months.  Transitioning to full time is possible in the future.  The Prodigy is a more recent conceptualization.

What is your approach to incorporating diversity, equity, and inclusivity into your work?

Our team is very small, and we are aware that it is male-dominated.  Both Andrew and Tristan come from minority backgrounds (Jewish and Asian descent); Andrew comprises the leadership team right now.  While our demographics are not ones that typically face disenfranchisement, they do bring us sensitivity to issues faced by people who may feel more on the outside.

Still, moving forward, we would like to bring on more diverse creators as we expand the team.  We would like creators from diverse racial, ethnic, economic, gender, sexual orientation, and international backgrounds, with different lived experiences, in order to create richer characters, settings, and stories, and also to ensure that the tone of our product is hitting the right notes with the audiences that it targets with greatest emphasis (in the case of The Prodigy, non-male readers).  Until we expand the team, we plan to extensively vet our product with willing colleagues that across various diversity spectra, and as we pilot the product in schools, will pay careful attention to include schools and students most likely to struggle with STEM concepts or experience disenfranchisement within STEM.

We wish to promote equity in education, and that requires engaging with diverse creators and consumers.

Your Business Model & Funding

What is your business model?

Our core model is direct to customers.  We see four potential groups of people who would purchase The Prodigy.  The first group is teachers or school districts, who would look to purchase The Prodigy for their classroom as a supplemental teaching tool.  Budget for The Prodigy could come out of science classroom funding or out of district reading budgets.  The second group is parents, who would purchase the book for their curious children, or, again, as supplement for a course the student is taking (and perhaps struggling to engage with).  The third group is students themselves.  However, considering that grade-schoolers typically have little money (and at our target age, normally in the form of allowance), students themselves probably will not be the primary buyers.  Finally, groups with identified crossover appeal (younger or older students than the target audience, curious adults, and comic book fans) may provide a supplemental audience.

The total initial primary U.S. market for The Prodigy: The Power of Invention is the number of middle-/high school students in the U.S., plus the number of teachers teaching physics.  There are approximately 26 million students in that age range, and approximately 200,000 middle- and-high school science teachers in the U.S.  Note that for schools, each school may wish to afford each student with a book, in "textbook'' style; thus teachers/districts could opt to buy multiple copies.  We also are aware, of course, that there is no reason why this book would not have international appeal, and these numbers could probably be toughly proportionately be applied to other English-speaking countries such as Canada, the UK, Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand (we are having trouble finding reliable statistics for other countries, however).  Other countries with large English second-language speaking populations (such as Germany and France) are obvious initial markets as well; other, more developing and emerging English-speaking countries such as India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philipines, and Egypt would require a more nuanced market analysis.

As part of the project, we intend to create a promotional tie-in website and forum.  We aim for that website to host guest blogposts by accomplished scientific researchers and educators.  These posts will expose readers to advanced topics and more real-world applications of the content discussed in the novel.  Such a site provides a chance to kickstart a Prodigy community, which could blossom into more down the line.  We hope that this will maintain visitors and, hopefully, repeat customers.  Longer-term aspirations include expanding The Prodigy to other media types, including videos, animations, interactive web applications, or games, all of which could become their own products.

Do you primarily provide products or services directly to individuals, to other organizations, or to the government?

Individual consumers or stakeholders (B2C)

What is your plan for becoming financially sustainable?

We hope that the initial offering of The Prodigy will be self-sustaining for revenue; indeed, there is precedent for this with other successful, similar titles (The Magic School Bus, The Cartoon Guide to..., Science Comics).  Additional revenue or investment will also allow us to expand the team and brand.  Additional team members who can write or draw comics will allow us to produce additional product at a greater rate; we also would hope to leverage the IP we develop to create other products in the long term, either internally or through licensing.  These could include a series on a streaming service or a web series through YouTube, licensed educational games, or even marchanidse, to promote the character who we hope to be culturally positive by herself.  We do not intend needing to rely on support from donations and grants to be sustainable in the long-term.

Share some examples of how your plan to achieve financial sustainability has been successful so far.

Since we are in the prototyping phase and moving to the pilot phase, there is not a lot of evidence we can provide just yet to demonstrate our financial sustainability.  However, as described above, competitors have proven the model successful for other target demographics, and we believe that would carry over to the Middle-grade core audience of The Prodigy.  Previously, The Scion received funding from the MIT Sandbox Initiative.  We are currently applying to Simons' Science Sandbox to try to gain additional grant finding, and there are other programs on our radar (Pratt's SteamPlant and Brown Institute Magic Grants) that we believe The Scion and The Prodigy would qualify for and we could consider applying to in the future.  However, we emphasize that these grants would be to kickstart expansion, and not seen as necessary for long-term financial sustainability.

Solution Team

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