Guest blog by Mina Johnson-Glenberg, PhD

As a professor who has always enjoyed the genre of action hero/ine, I found a lot to love in the Black Panther movie released February 2018. Two components transfixed me:  1) the tech savvy princess Shuri (played to perfection by Letitia Wright) and 2) the science (featuring the ingénue vibranium).

(WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE BLACK PANTHER)

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When I stumbled across the term “Black Panther Curriculum” recently in a New York Times  article, I assumed it would be an ode to vibranium, the metal that hitches a ride to Earth via a meteorite and fuels Wakanda’s high-tech society. A deeper Web search for “Black Panther Curriculum” is primarily filled with references to an engaging curriculum created by Tess Raser, a teacher in Chicago. Her focus is on topics like colonialism, race, black revolution, and feminism; topics that are critical and all too rarely covered in most US schools. What I did not unearth were lessons based on the dazzling STEM in the movie. So, this blog post serves as a call to action for instructors who may want to focus lessons on some of the not-too-distant STEM components in the movie. It is for instructors who may want to foster futuristic, fantastical thinking in youth, and perhaps to plant seeds for them to become tomorrow’s scientists.

The content below is an abbreviated version of a post on Dr. Johnson-Glenberg’s Embodied Games site and focuses on some technologies from the film that connect with obtainable future goals, as well as a culturally responsive teaching framework.  This is not an exhaustive list, but a starting point upon which more curricula could be built.

A simple table header is offered as an approach to begin research on, and to foster discussion around some of the cooler technologies in the film.  The topics in the table will help students to bridge concepts between science fiction and science fact, while encouraging them to generate future possibilities.

In the movie STEM topic(s) How it might work in movie What is similar today? What is opposite? Will it ever be? If so when?

Cell 1 asks for a quick description of the tech/action in the movie. Then, which established STEM topics the tech may be related to?  For cell 3, let’s be honest, nothing is well explained in the movie, so creativity is needed to conjecture HOW it might work. There are no wrong answers there. For cell 4, students will need a day or two to research. The prompt for what is opposite is included to encourage students to play around with reverse engineering. For example, if the goal is to make a wound stop flowing, what would do that? We know leech saliva makes blood flow freer and not coagulate, perhaps isolating the chemicals in the saliva might help to create better coagulants for healing wounds.  Finally, if students are forced to think about when an invention might come to fruition, then that might prompt them to see themselves as being part of the invention.  Anything to get more scientists into the pipeline!

Any class should end with the deep and thorny questions connecting the science and technology to social questions.  For example, if and how would one country share such technological riches with a world so unequal in resources? How should these technologies be used, and by whom? How could we ensure the technologies were used in only helpful ways?  Who are the gatekeepers, in other words,  who goes into these fields to research these technologies

Below is an example of how this framework could be applied to a technology example from the movie:
How can a bead of vibranium stop blood flow from a bullet wound?

Table 1. Example of futuristic thinking around vibranium’s medical properties.

In the movie STEM topic/s How it might work in movie What is similar/opposite today Will it ever be? If so, when?
A bead of vibranium is pushed  inside the CIA agent’s bleeding shoulder Cardiovascular system.
Blood coagulants. How to staunch open wounds.
Vibranium absorbs the movement of blood flow, redirects it back into body so it flows normally…? Similar – Zeolite is an absorbent mineral, used in patches for traumatic injuries.
Opposite– Saliva of leeches … (This column is the meat of the table –it should run a half page or more!)
Today we can SLOW bleeding, but not stop it immediately at the site.

We might have patches like that by 2025.

Again, the 4th column should take a few days of research to complete – this is where students can get very creative and futuristic, but they need to back it up with some sound research and examples.

Sample STEM topics of interest (to me) from the movie The Black Panther (2018)

1) The Suit. The Suit! One of the best cinematic scenes in the past decade, Shuri playing the role of a Bondian “Q” in her lab. Lots to choose from here, but we can focus on the suit. Can a suit ever absorb energy from another object, store it, and reflect that energy back?

We now have incredibly strong synthetics fibers that can stop bullets. There is Kevlar, which was, incidentally, created by a female chemist (Stephanie Kwolek). So, diffusing great force is possible with a wearable, but the physics of storing energy and redirecting in a focused manner seem far off.  The suit topic could lead to discussions around energy, how force is measured, storage capabilities, and chemistry.

Students might research graphene sheets, which are lightweight and distribute force better than any known material (10 times better than steel per unit weight).  What is the atomic structure of graphene? Look at the lead in your pencil – how does it differ? Why might a two sheet construction of graphene be better than one or three sheets? (Apparently, two is optimal.) What is special about the shape of a hexagon? Where are other hexagons in nature (beehives, constrained bubbles, etc.)?  Are there more hexagons in the movie?

2) Sonic Cannon. How does a sonic cannon work? What is sound actually? Discuss pressure waves. Discuss how the ear transduces mechanical energy (the sound wave) into electrochemical energy (nerve impulses) in the brain. Research on current uses of sound as a weapon could lead to its applications for non-lethal crowd control. What are the benefits and disadvantages of using nonlethal crowd control?  Does “nonlethal” equal “safe” or “humane”? Are there other uses for directed sound waves that could help, rather than hurt people or animals?

3) Voice commands. Well, now that we all understand sound… How does the suit know it is the owner’s voice?  This could lead to a lively discussion around measuring waves, Hertz, decibels, and speaker recognition algorithms (especially the need for a variety of voices and accents to be used during machine learning training phase). There is current debate around how poorly some of these algorithms work on facial and vocal recognition of women and people of color.

4) Urban Planning.  How does one hide a city underground?   What happens to the thermal footprint? How do you decide what to show satellites above ground?  What kinds of sustainability measures are needed for such a city? In what ways does the urban/rural distinction in Wakanda resemble how we set up urban and rural areas in the real world?  How is transportation a part of that?

5) MagLev.  America is profoundly behind in magnetic levitation. Other countries have moved ahead, and why have we not? Discuss how polarization works. Perhaps research the electric field and Coulomb’s law? How might the Mag-Lev system be affecting the final fight scene as the panther suits flicker off and on? What are mechanisms for guiding fast-moving trains and vessels? Discuss differences and safety considerations between EMD and EDS systems. Should America invest in this technology and reduce train travel time by half? What are ways that are linked?

Next Steps: Wakanda’s Legacy

The movie ends with both a large-scale international and small-scale neighborhood effort to share knowledge and technology to help others. Perhaps this short curriculum starter could serve to enrich the learning of our students in ways that are inclusive, engaging, heroically imaginative, and may have global impacts.

Dr. Mina C. Johnson-Glenberg is a researcher in the Psychology Department at Arizona State University. She is the director of the Embodied Games lab.

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