Marvel Makes Education an Adventure Worth Exploring

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August 28, 2016; NPR

For the back-to-school season, the boundless universe of Marvel Comics is offering five variant covers promoting STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) education. New young heroes are rising up to make learning something exciting and world-changing. The marvel of Marvel is that they always manage to integrate so many characters into a meaningful story. In this case, the adventure is about and for school children.

The five STEAM variant covers available in November will be:

  • Moon Girl & Devil Dinosaur #13 by Joyce Chin (Science)
  • Spider-Man #10 by Pasqual Ferry (Technology);
  • Invincible Iron Man # 1 by Mike McKone (featuring Riri Williams, a 15-year-old engineering prodigy at MIT);
  • Champions #2 by Pascal Campion (Arts); and
  • Gwenpool #8 by Will Sliney (Maths)

These new themes are fitting; even superheroes appreciate that knowledge is power. Classic Marvel heroes have often been part-time scientists: Peter Parker (Spider-Man), Reed Richards (Mister Fantastic), Bruce Banner (Hulk), and Tony Stark (Iron Man) are just a few.

“Our characters have been exciting fans for ages,” says David Gabriel, SVP Sales & Marketing, Marvel Comics. “With our new STEAM Variants, we plan to continue to motivate our fans to explore their passions in the fields of science, technology, engineering, art, and math and present these disciplines through some of our favorite young heroes who are doing just that—following their dreams and preparing for the challenges that await them ahead.”

The action and wit on display will address the poor representation of girls and minorities in the STEAM fields of study. The characters Riri Williams and Lunella “Moon Girl” Lafayette are, for example, African American; the newest Spider-Man, Miles Morales, is of Hispanic and African American descent.

“The media literally shapes what people aspire to be,” said Virginia Booth Womack, president of the National Association of Multicultural Engineering Program Advocates.

Womack also oversees recruitment and entertainment efforts for students from underrepresented communities at Purdue University’s College of Engineering. She says part of getting students to feel like they belong involves seeing people who look like them engaged in their field, in their own communities and the wider culture.

“The power that the media has to give students the opportunity to emulate is huge,” Womack says.

The National Science Foundation and the National Nanotechnology Initiative embraced similar ideas when they launched the “Generation Nano: Small Science, Superheroes” competition to inspire high school students to create unique superheroes with nanotechnology-enabled competence and capabilities. Students produced a written concept, a short comic, and/or a short video to present their superhero’s story. Marvel’s legendary creator, Stan Lee, supported the competition.

Neuroscientist Paul Zehr, a pop culture blogger for Psychology Today, has written two books on the science of superheroes, examining existing technologies that would allow Batman to sustain his nightly duties and Tony Stark to build an array of armored suits.

“I think too often that’s the part that’s missing,” says Zehr about engaging students. “They don’t get the imaginative part.”

Some professional educators may argue that they would be lowering their standards and reinforcing lazy habits to allow comic books in a classroom. But since Marvel is making an investment in this STEAM initiative, there surely is an active market for such literature. If purists venerate the written word and the visual fine arts, they can surely give the combination of stories and fine art expressed in comics a try, just as anyone might put music and dance together. If the primary challenge for any teacher is to get a student’s attention, Marvel heroes exalting the glories of science is a legitimate teaching and learning tool, if not adventuresome as well.—James Schaffer

  • Mary Morgan

    I applaud Marvel Comics for its initiative and especially appreciate that the issue of poor representation of women and minorities in STEAM fields will be addressed. In all honesty, I am unaware of Riri Williams and Moon Girl Lafayette. However, I will be buying every a comic book with each variant cover and will begin following the lives of Riri and Moon Girl!