In my pop-sci writing, mainly here, at Psychology Today, and in the books Becoming Batman and Inventing Iron Man, I use superheroes as foils for communicating science. I have encouraged other scientists to pursue similar approaches in articles such as “From Claude Bernard to the Batcave and Beyond: Using Batman as a hook for physiology education” and “Avengers Assemble! Using pop-culture icons to communicate science”.

Project Superhero: Using Pop Culture to Inspire Interest in Science

It’s been very exciting. Ronni Plovsing and Ronan Berg wrote about chronic respiratory failure using Darth Vader as the case study in a 2014 article for the journal Anaesthesiology. All of these efforts have been aimed at adult audiences, however.

Since publishing Becoming Batman in 2008, I’ve received an avalanche of invitations to visit schools and I’ve spoken with thousands of kids throughout the entire K-12 range, but largely clustered around middle school grades six, seven and eight. When doing those talks I tried to listen carefully to the questions I was asked and who was asking them.

Many wanted to know if there’d ever be something specifically for girls aged 10 to 15, who sometimes begin to drift away from science and mathematics. In fact, using pop culture as a tool for educating this group might be even more effective than it is for communicating with adults. Testing that idea was the genesis for my latest book, Project Superhero.

Project Superhero is a hybrid fiction/non-fiction book written in diary style and specifically aimed at girls. I took many of the issues of human physiology, neural plasticity, exercise training, martial arts and nutrition that I explored in Becoming Batman and Inventing Iron Man and reframed them in a way that was more accessible for a younger age group. I also generated a fictional story to give the book, which follows my protagonist Jessie and her friends across her their eighth grade year, a narrative arc.

One of Jessie’s teachers gives her class a yearlong assignment, in which everyone must choose a superhero and explore her or his strengths, weaknesses and contributions to society. Jessie settles on Batgirl because she represents a human who has worked super hard and trained to reach her maximum potential. Jessie finds Batgirl intriguing because her humanity is accessible and feels “real”.

Jesse as Batgirl. (Illustration: Kris Pearn)

Jessie goes beyond just the theoretical understanding of Batgirl’s physical capacity and begins to learn about martial arts, physical fitness, nutrition and what real empowerment feels like. It feels good to be able to move and do things. Batgirl stimulates Jessie’s interest in science because she wonders what all the training needed to become that superhero would actually do to a human body. For every answer that she gets, Jessie discovers new questions. What would training bat-level do to her bones, her muscles and her brain? How much—and what—should she eat?

To engage people in concepts related to health and fitness requires more than simplification of exercise science. Instead, timely, relevant and interesting links between the concepts and the experiences and interests of the client are needed. Many people—whether they are kids or adults—are put off by scientific topics because they can’t relate to the message and because they are afraid of the work involved. Both involve an aspect of, if not fear, then discomfort.

Jessse and the brain. (Illustration: Kris Pearn)

Pop-culture is everywhere and is by definition comfortable for most people. So, using icons like superheroes that are found all around us can be exploited to explore science. The superhero can be used as a familiar frame of reference through which the scientific message can be conveyed in an accessible manner.

In my article “Avengers Assemble!” I called this the “middle ground” concept. The basic and very simple idea is that a commonly known cultural icon, like Wonder Woman or Iron Man, can bridge to a relevant science concept. The bottom line is that whether we appreciate, enjoy, dislike or have no opinion whatsoever on superheroes or any other pop-culture icons, it must be acknowledged they have tremendous power and potential as devices for engaging the general public.

Jesse rides an axon. (Illustration: Kris Pearn)

In schools these kinds of approaches can hopefully be used to enhance efforts aimed at encouraging young girls to maintain and explore fully their early interests in science. This group in particular needs the reinforced message that, as 13-year-old Jessie concludes, “there really is a superhero in me.” Empowering this younger generation is critical and applying this approach to communicate science in schools and to the broader public can only serve to increase the scientific literacy of our society.

With the passage of time we are only going to become more reliant on science, engineering and technology. As Carl Sagan pointed out in his amazing book The Demon Haunted World—Science as a Candle in the Dark, “…almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster…”

It’s up to all of us to do everything we can to ensure a safe and enlightened future by fostering n appreciation of science. It can start at home or in schools and it needs to continue everywhere and at all times. If we can do it in an interesting, engaging and fun way, it won’t even feel like that much work! As the friendly-neighborhood-physics professor James Kakalios, wrote in his excellent book The Physics of Superheroes, using superheroes for science might make you “…so busy enjoying this superhero ice cream sundae that you won’t realize that I am sneakily getting you to eat your spinach at the same time.”