Thursday, August 11, 2011


My name is Jim McClain, creator of the Solution Squad. Solution Squad is a project that I have been working on since 2007. Back in those days, as an 8th grade math teacher, whenever I made a worksheet, quiz, or test for my class, I tried to use fictional names and characters that my students would enjoy. So, instead of Dick and Jane, my students would get Clark and Lois, for example. Then I started to incorporate actual superheroes into my problems. Practice sheets to make kids faster at adding fractions were entitled, "Flash Time," complete with a picture of the Flash racing across the top of the page. I had a problem for mean, median, and mode where Robin was tracking emissions from his Robin Cycle. It even got to the point where George PĆ³lya's four steps of problem solving became the Fantastic Four Steps of Problem Solving. I was hooked.

I couldn't stop including comic book characters in my own creations. They started appearing on sheets using dialogue in their own words with word balloons, complete with a comic book font I bought from Comicraft. Cyborg hosted the students' page about getting to know their textbook in the same way he got to know how to use his cybernetic body. You know, so they could get the most use out of it? Then I started making connections using the omnipresent "x" as a variable. Why not use the X-Men? At the time, X-Men Evolution was popular, and they were teenagers like my kids. Ideas started to flow, and I made a lot of fun activities for students to do. When they graphed on the coordinate plane, I didn't have them draw butterflies; I had them draw Superman's insignia while they listened to a recorded episode of the Superman radio show from the 1940s. I even had one for the Shadow, using promotional art that Neal Adams did for the movie.

After a few years of doing this, I thought that I could probably make a book using these ideas. There was no way I would get the permission of the various copyright holders to go along, so I thought, why not make my own characters? I'd been doing that for years. Since I was trying to appeal to teenagers, the best way to go about that was to use teenage characters, someone with whom they could relate. I also remembered that Johnny Quick used to use a mathematical formula to access his superspeed powers (3X2(9YZ)4A), so it's not like the idea of mathematics and superheroes are necessarily at odds. And so, the seeds for Solution Squad were sown.

Solution Squad characters contain visual and linguistic cues to help students understand and remember mathematical concepts. For example, Abscissa, whose real name is Xiao Sheng (seen at left), can run horizontally at very high speeds. Her twin brother Ordinate, whose true name is Yao Feng (seen below), can fly and lift great weights, providing a vertical visual image. In their collected histories, it is revealed that she was born first and is much faster than he, so Xiao (x) always precedes Yiao (y). Together, they are known as the Ordered Pair. Notice also how Xiao's "x" insignia has two serifs and looks like it has feet at the bottom and can be compared to the shape of scissors. This reminds students not only of which character the "x" belongs to, but also what she does and consequently what the "x" represents. Yao's insignia can be drawn so that it appears that a strong person is standing upright, lifting a great weight. This performs the same function for "y." The formal terms for the x- and y-coordinates are not commonly taught today, but repeated use of the names of the Ordered Pair make it painless!

This is but a sample of the types of thinking behind the characters of Solution Squad. There will be much more to come as the project begins to take its final shape. Please feel free to comment in the comments section and thank you for reading.