Love of comics opens new avenues for teaching STEM communications

Steph Phillips teaching class.

Stephanie Phillips teaches a class in the new Department of Engineering Education. Photo: Douglas Levere


Published November 7, 2018

“My dad likes to remind me that I created my first comic, about a werewolf, when I was 3. But because I couldn’t write the dialogue, my dad filled in those balloons in the comic for me. He still has it in his office. ”
Stephanie Phillips, assistant professor of practice
Department of Engineering Education

Stephanie Phillips began thinking about visual elements very early in life, starting with the artwork in comic books.

“My dad likes to remind me that I created my first comic, about a werewolf, when I was 3,” says Phillips, a new assistant professor of practice in the Department of Engineering Education in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.  

“But because I couldn’t write the dialogue, my dad filled in those balloons in the comic for me. He still has it in his office.

“I have always loved comics. The first one I owned was Sabrina, and from there I bought every Batman comic book I could get my hands on,” she says.

Phillips worked at Comic Cons when she was in high school, helping with setup at the conventions, working as staff and in guest relations. “This allowed me to meet many of the comic creators whose work I had read growing up. It took a while for me to realize I should be writing comics, however.”

She started writing comics during graduate school and her work appears with Top Cow Productions, Black Mask Studios and Ominous Press. Primarily a comics writer, she has also published on women’s hockey, martial arts studies and academic research.

Phillips began teaching technical writing in the Department of Engineering Education this semester, providing instruction in resumes, reports and professional writing for engineers. In addition, Phillips’ class expands the boundaries of STEM communications, teaching the use of visuals through text and imagery, and communication with a team.

Phillips talking with student Shane Landman who wore his handmade costume to class.

Stephanie Phillips talks with student Shane Landman, who wore his handmade costume to class. Photo: Douglas Levere

“Many people I meet think my technical writing is so different from my published writing — and we are talking about comic books — but there are actually very strong similarities,” she says.

“Technical writing is about communication, whether it is through images or written or oral communication,” she says. “Being able to create a successful comic means communicating to my creative team — artists, letterers, colorists, publishers, editors — and an audience, the readers.”

Step Phillips at her booth at ComicCon.

Stephanie Phillips at this year’s New York Comic Convention in New York City with “Kicking Ice,” her newly published illustrated book about girls’ and women’s hockey. Photo: Jason Spooner

Visual communication and collaboration

“Visual communication is what interests me most,” says Phillips, a PhD candidate in rhetoric and composition at the University of South Florida. “I really love working with engineering students on visual rhetoric, which can be described as communications through the use of visual images and texts.

“We are so inundated with visuals: Whether you’re on social media or just walking down the street, visual advertisements and videos are all around us.”

Prior to UB, Phillips taught for five years at USF and the University of Tampa.

“I’ve been teaching engineers,” she says, “so it has included the sort of curriculum offered in my class at UB. For me, the two big similarities between technical writing and writing for comics are visual communication and collaboration.”

Phillips says this is because, in creating her published work, she is working with a team of at least four other graphic arts professionals who are collaborating on the comic, not including publishers.

“I am saying you are doing the exact same thing when you are working with a team on an engineering project,” she says. “There is absolutely crossover with everything I write.

“In terms of teaching, it allows me to be very illustrative of some of the points I am trying to make about how important images and narrative can be in technical communication.”

Write about what you know

Cover of the first issue of "Kicking Ice.".

An earlier cover of “Kicking Ice.”

Second to her lifelong love of comic books — although not by much — is Phillips’ love of ice hockey.

“I’ve been playing hockey since middle school,” says Phillips, a lifelong resident of the Tampa area. “I started out playing roller hockey and around the end of high school I realized that ice existed in Florida. I transitioned to ice skating and absolutely loved it.”

She regularly plays recreational and pickup hockey, and loves playing in Buffalo. “It feels like somewhere I was meant to be all along,” she says.

“My dissertation director is always telling me, ‘Write about what you know.’ And if there is one thing I know, it’s hockey. One of my initial goals was to create a web series about girls playing sports.

“I wrote for a women’s hockey news blog called The Ice Garden, so I had some connections with the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL),” she says.

From there, Phillips had an idea for an illustrated book about girls’ and women’s hockey. Not knowing what it was going to look like, she enlisted the help of her comic book publisher, Ominous Press.

“They helped me run with it and put it all together,” she says. “This was, I’d say, late 2017.”

The book, “Kicking Ice,” is now in print and available in comic book shops and online. It tells the story of two young female hockey players, Bella and Skye, who dream of playing professional hockey in the NWHL.

“Bella and Skye are the only girls on their co-ed hockey team, and learn to overcome bullying from some of their male opponents,” says Phillips. “Bella and Skye prove that kicking ice isn't just for boys.

Featured on ESPN, “Kicking Ice” is published in partnership with the National Women’s Hockey League, and a portion of all sales goes to support the players and growth of women’s hockey.  

Women’s martial arts

Phillips in the ring after winning a martial arts competition.

Stephanie Phillips (left) in the ring in March 2016, after winning her first sanctioned muay thai fight. Photo: Imani Lee

Phillips’ other sport love is martial arts.

“I started doing karate and tae kwon do as a kid,” she says. “My involvement and skill level progressed, but there were gaps. Then about six years ago I wanted to get back into it, so I started doing judo and jiu-jitsu.

“I was more interested in a striking sport, however, so I ended up transitioning into muay thai, the national sport of Thailand. It is akin to kickboxing, but more violent because you’re allowed to clinch, use elbows and knees.”

“Muay thai is like a very fast chess game. I really like using that part of my brain,” Phillips says.

“It’s a giant puzzle and you need to react fast, so, you’re thinking, ‘If they do this move, what’s the countermove that fits? There’s a block to every move, so you have to be going so fast or you’re going to get hurt.’  

“In Tampa we traveled for muay thai fights all over the state with the gym where I trained, freestyle muay thai,” she says. “I wanted to grow a women’s martial arts program there and include self-defense classes for women, so I eventually became a trainer.”

Another part of her interest in martial arts is linked to writing comics, Phillips says. “I absolutely love narrating fight scenes, and choreographing fights.

“I am very interested in those. When I get a superhero or a comic that has the vigilante element, I love putting those visual elements together. I ask myself, ‘What is this going to look like? What angles can we use? Different disciplines, and things like that,’” she says.   

“Given the direction of society, with so much visual communication going on everywhere — especially all of the Marvel and DC Comics movies — comics, this type of communication, is becoming more popular, drawing more serious academic attention and becoming less contentious in academic settings,” Phillips says.

“So when we do visual rhetoric in my Engineering Education classes now, it is easy for me to illustrate some of the things I mean about process and creation with pieces of my own comics.”

Learn more about Stephanie Phillips at her website.