3 Ways to Use Comics & Superhero Movies to Teach Science

by | Sep 5, 2018

By bringing pop culture into our classrooms as educators, we’re all trying to do the same thing – increase student engagement. But there’s another “e” that we need to be worried about as well: empowerment. Those are the two hills that STEM teachers face daily – engagement isn’t enough when the content requires students to develop demonstrable skills. That comes from empowerment. Getting a student interested in STEM content is relatively easy with a solid pop culture kick. Getting them to believe that they can perform the new skill time and again, and, with practice, get it right? That can come from empowerment through pop culture.

Here are three ways to use comics and superhero movies to teach science in your STEM setting:

1) Why Should I Be Interested In This? Those first few minutes of class go by many different names, depending on the school, the teacher or the administration: Bell-ringer, Warm-Up, Opening Question and others. It’s those precious few moments where you can grab and hold on to your students’ attention or be fighting an uphill battle all class period.

Of course that’s a perfect place for an image, a GIF or a video snippet showing some cool bit of science or science fiction from pop culture. I find that the earlier in the year you can do this, the better. Your students can see your class as a destination, rather than a chore, if they’re going to be greeted by a GIF of Thor and The Hulk jumping at each other from Thor: Ragnarok (used for my lesson on momentum), or a GIF of a bad guy punching Luke Cage and having his wrist snap, from Netflix’s Luke Cage series (used for my lesson on Newton’s 3rd Law). Both of these examples had questions above them: “What happens next?” and “Why?” respectively. Students needed to discuss their ideas at their table and have a coherent, justifiable answer by the time I was done taking attendance.

This can, of course, be repeated with comic book panels, or still images, of video clips. The point is to let the pop culture do the heavy lifting of pulling the students in, and getting them engaged within the first few moments of being in the classroom. As with using pop culture in the other two ways coming up, the idea is to, with the engagement, foster that feeling of empowerment. “How hard can this be? I mean, I saw that movie with Thor in it, and I loved it.” The content loses its foreign feeling, and they take an ownership of it. Students want to figure out this question. After all, the clip, picture, whatever it’s coming from is cool. Boom – you’ve got an engaged and empowered class.

Oh – and while I use examples that may not be appropriate for middle school or elementary students (please don’t show a bad guy graphically breaking his wrist on Luke Cage’s jaw to elementary students), the approaches can be scaled in either direction. Just find a pop culture image, GIF or meme that touches the content you’re looking to teach. They’re out there.

2) Model That: Comics and movies are filled with action scenes and extreme physical stunts. If you’ve got an activity or a lab that’s a little dry and crusty around the edges, why not put a pop culture skin on it? For example, in my Physics class, we needed to model kinematics (things moving, falling, etc.). It’s a lot of rather dry formulas and problems. Instead of sticking with a rather sterile lab, I re-wrote an activity to model Deadpool’s “drop” into the SUV from the start of the first Deadpool movie (I used the trailer to show the scene). It was complex, and there was a lot of math before my students could get to building the setup they needed, but they were 100% engaged. They understood the problem on a visceral level. It was cool – which is a word rarely used with kinematic formulas. In the end, my students had to drop a marble into a moving car from 2 meters up. And they all did it within two tries. It wasn’t a marble – it was Deadpool.

Other examples my students have had to model have included a new stunt for Mad Max: Fury Road, BB-8’s distance vs. his displacement, Thelma and Louise’s car off the cliff, and Gwen Stacy falling to her death in Spider-Man comics and movies.

Picking a scene from a pop culture resource isn’t just limited to physics. A pop culture example can be found for virtually any discipline of STEM, from the dinosaurs of Jurassic World to the ecology and geology of Kong’s Skull Island. Pick an “overlay,” a pop culture “skin” for your activity, and watch the engagement and empowerment shoot sky high. That’s part of the beauty of pop culture – we all feel a sense of ownership, and when you feel that, you’ll have a fire in your belly to learn more about it.

Obviously, using a pop culture “skin” over your content can be as light or as intense as you wish. An infectious disease lesson may benefit from some spicing up by The Walking Dead. And that might turn the lesson into your students walking into a bunker to find a survivor who can tell them about the zombies outside, but needs their help to figure out how the disease spreads. Your students will be hooked, they’ll remember the material, but more importantly, they’ll remember how fun it was to come to class when it was the only safe bunker in the school, and they’ll be hungry (no pun intended) for more.

3) Choose Your Own Problem: Another idea I’ve used a few times for a project is to let my students discover the science in some pop culture that they like and they choose. Modeled after my own articles (www.thescienceof.org) or those by Rhett Allain at WIRED and others, students are tasked with finding a piece of pop culture that they enjoy and looking at the science that went into it, good or bad. I encourage students to take a nibble, not a big bite, as they go after something so they can quickly get lost in the minutiae or end up mired in science they don’t quite understand (or, frankly, need for class).

How does this work? When given the project assignment, students need to find a pop culture scene or snippet that contains an example of science that we’ve covered in class. It can be something as simple as an arrow shot on the CW’s Arrow, The Flash running, zero-gravity movement in The Expanse, Black Panther jumping out of the plane at the start of the movie, or talk about new elements in the recent Dark Knights: Metal comic book series from DC. They need to find the scene – that gives them the ownership and interest factor.

Then – they dig into the science. Projectile motion for arrows, acceleration and speed for Flash, the formation of man-made elements in Dark Knights: Metal, or whatever piece works for the example they’ve chosen. For physics, one of the requirements is that they have to make assumptions and estimations (important skills they need to develop) that allow them to perform a realistic calculation for the scene they’ve selected. For chemistry, examples of man-made elements, and how they were made.

These are projects, and I have used them as presentations, pushing my students to watch TED Talks to develop a presentation style. It needs to be clear to them that for this project, they are the expert in the room. But be aware – after years of being told what the variables are, and how a problem should be solved, more than a few students will freeze up when you take them off of that particular leash and ask them to work out their own problem. The risk is certainly there, but the reward is worth it. Presentations for these projects have a pride of ownership that shines through.

One important point with all of these uses of pop culture in the STEM classroom that I’m careful to make sure my students understand though – we’re not applying science, or examining the science of pop culture in order to belittle it or take away the fun. These extreme examples of science have a purpose in the story – as metaphor for power, as a stand-in for something in the real world, or a means to blow the doors of wonder wide open. Be sure that your students know that the goal of either of the above is not to walk away saying, “That’s so fake!”

Once you start applying pop culture to your STEM classroom, the ideas will start coming fast and furious (The Fast and the Furious is also great for physics examples, by the way), and you’ll start to see the benefits. Your students will take ownership in the material and be empowered to face any challenge that comes their way. Your students will start to see your class as a destination, and their STEM teacher as someone who, not only knows a lot, but shares some of the same interests that they do, and maybe – just maybe, someone a little more relatable and a little more human.

That’s a pretty cool benefit of adding some pop culture to your classroom.

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