How Superhero Pop Culture Becomes Pop Quizzes & STEAM Learning In Today's Schools

Solution Squad
Credit: Serena Guerra/Jim McCain

At Chicago's C2E2 2017 last weekend, a group of educators came together to talk about the use of combining STEAM (science, technology, engineering, architecture, and mathematics) and comics to teach in their classrooms. The panel consisted of Mike Espinos, Jim McClain, Shari Brady, and her husband, former Newsarama editor, Matt Brady.

Credit: Lan Pitts (Newsarama)

The Bradys have put together an educational site called TheScienceOf.org that mixes elements and moments of pop culture with how they would work in real world scenarios such as the recent The Mummy trailer with Tom Cruise and its zero-G scene.

The central focus of the discussion was on the usage of pop culture in the classroom. Matt Brady broke it down by starting out with how it increases engagement with his students.

Credit: Matt Brady

“Pop culture has no native language besides 'cool,'” Brady explained. He talked how he explains Newton's third law with help from a scene from Netflix’s Luke Cage series where Luke is punched in the jaw by someone that results in their fist being shattered.

Matt showed off some of his worksheets that he uses for his own classroom that include the likes of how Iceman uses thermochemistry to turn into ice and how much heat would have to be released to do so. One of the most newer ones he has takes the old egg drop test and simply incorporates Deadpool into it. For those uninitiated, the egg drop test takes a raw egg and the students have to design a contraption to protect the egg so it doesn’t break when dropped from designated heights. “It’s an old one, but sometimes we find things that could just use a coat of paint.”

Credit: Lan Pitts (Newsarama)

Shari talked about about her teaching of genetics and how she had a project where her students had to make their own Avenger. They had to select certain powers and how they would work, but it was the creation of something new that the students truly loved.

“If you make it something can take ownership of, they love it,” she said.

McClain talked about his own superhero book The Solution Squad that has a diverse team with math-based super powers. He created a Chinese character for the team because his daughter is Chinese and he wanted that representation for her. McClain has his own YouTube Channel for the team as well.

“You’d think 7th graders would be too old for puppets, but they love them!”

Credit: Lan Pitts (Newsarama)

There were three big discussions about the cons of using pop culture when teaching, the biggest one being the possibility of being sued. Matt addressed this by saying he’s been in talks with the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund about the expanded fair use.

“Teachers have to understand that we don’t own these characters.”

He emphasized Disney's propensity to take legal action and usually sue when it comes to things like this, but he’s hopeful for the future and that material similar to what he’s produced can be officially licenced without any repercussion.

The other big thing that was talked about was the budget for materials. Espinos talked about how he resorted to Amazon for cheap electronic parts for pennies on the dollar. He showed a Blue Lantern he had made using a 3D printer and how it lights up when his ring touches it.

“Total cost, without the printer? 75 cents.”

Espinos, who hosts the Honest Teacher podcast, also had a STEAM World Championship wrestling title belt with him as well. It looked similar to the current WWE Intercontinental Championship. “I had this made and you wouldn’t believe the kids who want to wear this. They have to get an A or a B to wear it and that’s incentive enough.”

Credit: Matt Brady

Matt declared a mock challenge for the title and cut a pretty solid promo against Espinos.

The final challenge using pop culture is the instance of if someone doesn’t get the reference. Shari spoke about how this is where your story telling abilities will have to come into play and break down the basic story elements.

Matt added on about how if they want to use Star Wars, he suggested Rogue One or The Force Awakens.

Finally, Matt passed along the message to not kill the fun. He mentioned there’s a balance to make with the students and why they should care in the first place and hopefully something sticks with them.

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