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Thursday, September 23, 2021

‘Engineering Superheroes’ video series introduces material science to younger generation

New video series combines material engineering concepts and superhero icons for accessible education

‘Engineering Superheroes,’ a new Youtube video series with a single crowdfunded pilot episode currently released, seeks to introduce elementary school students to material engineering through exploring the science behind their favorite superheroes. 

Ricardo Castro, a professor in the Department of Material Science and Engineering at UC Davis, created the series. Castro has frequently found himself faced with a problem likely relatable to many—the struggle for a teacher to retain students’ attention throughout the entire duration of a lecture. According to Castro, some believe that lectures are simply too long, but he doesn’t think it’s that straightforward. 

“You go watch an Avengers movie that lasts three hours, and there’s undivided attention by everyone,” Castro said. 

While Castro recognizes that there are certain inherent differences between education and entertainment, he believes that a combination of both can be used in classrooms and beyond as a tool of simultaneous engagement and learning. 

In 2015, Castro began teaching a class at UC Davis called “Materials Marvels: Science of Superheroes,” that was aimed at allowing engineers who are primarily trained to think rationally to explore creativity. The class took material science, which, according to ucdavis.edu, is “discovering new materials and integrating them into engineering design,” and encouraged the inclusion of creativity in scientific innovation. 

“Creativity is something that is really the key for any innovation,” Castro said. “You cannot be innovative without creativity. But there are other things you also need—innovation needs the technical background to get it done.”

He went on to explain how superheroes fit into this concept. 

“Superheroes have no boundaries—they can do anything,” Castro said. “We start talking about them, and then you start bringing some concepts of science and technology back into the game. This creates a very big mass in your brain trying to connect; can I actually do this? Can I actually build a Thor hammer that can do what the Thor hammer does? Can I create materials that can only respond to a specific person?”

The course still exists and has even grown in popularity among non-engineering majors. However, Castro wanted to try expanding the concept to K-12 programs, offering an early introduction to STEM. Initially, the idea was to do in-person outreach, but when COVID-19 hit, their thoughts shifted to video. 

“Maybe we should record it, and create a storyline, and within that storyline we bring this concept of explaining the science of superheroes and tricking the audience to learn about those concepts and inspire them,” Castro said. “Say, if this is what you like, if you like Spiderman, if you like Iron Man, maybe you should think about becoming an engineer.”

The next step was to actually implement the idea.

“We ended up doing crowdfunding, and we were able to run a pilot,” Castro said. “After much time, we raised enough money to film the first episode. That was fun, it was exhausting, we filmed the whole thing in one day, but at the end I thought, wow! I have even more appreciation for Tom Cruise now.”

According to the website for Castro’s lab, the Nanoceramics Thermochemistry Laboratory, the first episode discusses the science behind Captain America’s shield, “[presenting] concepts of composite materials, atomic structures and [performing] a fun activity on the mechanical properties of chocolates.”

Isabella Costa, a Ph.D. student in the Material Science and Engineering Department at UC Davis, also participated in the creation of the first video. According to Costa, she collaborated on the script and experiment as well as being part of the cast. 

Costa emphasized that she loves both superheroes and the concept of introducing materials science to students at a younger age, especially as she herself didn’t hear about it until she was already in university studying mechanical engineering. 

“I know a lot of people don’t understand what we do, materials science,” Costa said. “If I had the opportunity that I’m trying to give to people right now, knowing about materials science and knowing what it is, I would’ve picked a different course. I really hope to make a difference.”

Costa went on to explain some of the steps the video went through during creation, with the goal of creating a widely accessible video. 

“We made all the presentations and video in English, but we made sure to include subtitles for other languages,” Costa said. “I also went over the video with my cousins, who are around 11 and 12. I wanted them to watch the video, I wanted them to read the script, and ask them hey, do you understand this? We want to be speaking ‘child language;’ speaking clearly, because these are complicated topics.”

According to Castro and Costa, they have lots of ideas for a second episode and beyond, contingent on audience reaction and access to funding for a continuation of the project. 

“The second episode is based on a little bit more [of] Captain America’s shield, but looking into fire resistance,” Castro said. “We already have all the script for that, we just need the money to do that. So, there are two ways. We are thinking of going crowdfunding again, but also we are approaching the National Science Foundation. They already signed that they are interested in the project, and if we get funds from them it could be like ten episodes!”

Castro elaborated on his underlying goal for the project, and his belief in combining technical skill with creativity. 

“As always, the goal is to inspire,” Castro said. “We are in a very unique time right now. There’s a lot of new tech out there, and then we start watching videos, and maybe something 20 years ago we thought wow, this is impossible, this is so much nonsense, and now we’re saying hey, it is not nonsense. It’s just whoever came up with the stories was dreaming and being creative.”

He then elaborated on the process of innovation.

“Maybe the way of developing things is to go back to those crazy ideas and then putting the strings on,” Castro said. “Be creative, and then make it a reality, rather than trying to develop something within the constraint that you have.”

As for Castro’s favorite superhero, you could almost guess that the professor gravitates toward the character that is always striving for new invention and building the technology up to meet his imagination. 

“My favorite superhero has always been Iron Man,” Castro said. “I find he’s a fascinating character, because there is a lot to relate to in terms of engineering. He is the mark of an engineer—not personality-wise, because he’s not a team player and we need team players, although his character evolves. He is my favorite, but all of them have something special.” 

And as for Costa?

“It would have to be Iron Man—his superpower is his brain!” Costa said. 

Written by: Sonora Slater — science@theaggie.org

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