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Physics Faculty Duo Creates Bilingual Children’s Books to Make STEM Fun

Is there a way for children—especially Latinx children—to have more fun learning about science? Two Vassar faculty members, Professor of Physics Cindy Schwarz and Assistant Professor of Physics Juan Merlo-Ramirez, say of course there is. Merlo recently updated a Spanish version of a book Schwarz wrote a decade ago, and the two of them are planning to write more bilingual children’s science books to prove it.

Physics profs Cindy Schwarz and Juan Merlo-Ramirez with two young readers, 8-year-old Tessa Golden Daly (daughter of Professor of Physics Brian Daly) and 10-year-old Juan Merlo-Diaz.

Schwarz published Adventures in Atomville: The Macroscope, co-written with Skidmore Physics Professor Jill Linz, in 2009. With donations from local businesses, Schwarz provided copies to elementary school students throughout the Hudson Valley. She followed up by visiting some of these schools, and the reactions of the students were exactly what she and Linz had hoped for: enthusiasm for a new type of “science fiction” where the children read it for the story and just happen to learn science along the way. Recently Schwarz was teaching in Vassar’s Exploring College program where she met several students, now in their teens, who recalled the book and even had copies still on their shelves.

Schwarz says she knows the format she employed to attract young readers to STEM is viable because she received good reviews for Adventures in Atomville from many sources, including some third grade students at Poughkeepsie’s Krieger Elementary School.

Soon after the English version was published in print, Schwarz published it as an interactive iBook and on the e-reader devices Kindle and Nook. Linz redrew all of the original illustrations in color and more material and images were added.

Both English and Spanish versions (with original translation by Vassar Professor of Hispanic Studies Lizabeth Paravisini) have been available since 2009, but the iBook version was only available in English. Spurred on by the arrival of new colleague Juan Merlo, a native of Mexico, Schwarz finished the iBook Spanish edition, Aventuras en Atomville: El Macroscopio. The English version is available for download in 51 countries and the Spanish version is available in 22 countries.

The iBook version contains several interactive pages where children can answer questions about some of the scientific concepts they’ve learned while reading the story. They can look up words they do not know, and even hear the book read aloud.

In addition to helping with the updating of the Spanish translation of Schwarz’s book, Merlo is working on a book of his own, which he plans to publish in both English and Spanish, that was inspired by his desire to make science more fun for his own children. His first book features “Enigma, The Quantum Dog,” a canine who answers children’s questions about science by behaving in a special way.

Tessa and Juan view an interactive page of the iBook “Adventures in Atomville.”

As a result of the recent collaboration, Schwarz has been inspired to resume work on a second children’s science book about a cat that provides young readers lots of information about science after swallowing laser beams. Merlo will provide the Spanish translation.

“We want to create a series of quality, bilingual stories about STEM that children will have fun reading,” Schwarz said. “There are books for kids about science on the market, of course, but most of them just spit out the information without making it fun.”

Schwarz and Merlo recently talked about their project on a local Hispanic radio show, Juan 95.7 FM, and they will give a bilingual, hands-on STEM presentation to families at the nearby Red Hook Public Library on March 27. They have already received a small stipend to pay a Vassar physics major who is bilingual to participate with them.

Schwarz says she and Merlo hope to get other Vassar students involved in creating future books, perhaps as part of a new “intensives” course she and Merlo would develop together. In addition, they have begun preliminary discussions with John Bradley, Executive Director of the Vassar College Urban Education Initiative, to host a “Day of Science” on the campus for local children, including those from the Hispanic Community, sometime next year. And Schwarz has begun discussions with Dean of the Faculty William Hoynes about finding ways to involve other members of the Vassar faculty, in both the sciences and the humanities, in the project. “We see all of this work as part of a comprehensive approach to attracting kids, especially Latinx kids, to science.” Schwarz said, “and we both have lots of ideas for future books.”

Schwarz and Merlo welcome contact from interested faculty, students, community members, children’s book publishers, and anyone involved in bilingual education. Email them at schwarz@vassar.edu and/or jmerloramirez@vassar.edu

Adventures in Atomville: The Macroscope is available for purchase and download at Apple Books as is the Spanish version, Aventuras en Atomville: El Macroscopio.