Essay: Why I’m Taking My Physics Class to See Black Panther

Sometime in the third week of February, I’ll load my physics students up on a bus first thing in the morning and we’ll go off to a local movie theater to watch Black Panther together.

No, it’s not a “science” movie. It’s not historical. It’s not a documentary. It is unapologetically a superhero movie set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, starring T’Challa, the king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda who has become the latest in a long line of protectors of his people, the Black Panther.

Full disclosure – I’ve used movies as part of my classes before, if you couldn’t guess from the rest of the content on the site. To date, I’ve taken students to see Gravity, The Martian and Hidden Figures. It’s something I enjoy doing and am pretty passionate about.

But why? I teach at a public high school with state-mandated curriculum, and more than that, these will be my IB (International Baccalaureate) physics students who have, basically, a college level class’ worth of physics to learn in the time I have them. Why am I giving up my class time, and bringing the stress of planning and executing a field trip down on myself when we could be in class swinging things around our heads and worrying about circular motion and centripetal force?

I’ve put some thought into it. Probably a little more than usual, given my concern I might get some pushback from administration on it because, at the surface, this could look like I’m just taking my students out to see the latest Marvel movie. It’s more than that. I’ve broken things down into two categories, tangible and intangible. If you’ve ever taken your students on a movie fields trip, these will more than likely be familiar. If you haven’t – you should think about it, and hopefully, my explanations will given you the motivation to get things rolling.

The only guidance I have from my administration is to tie this into learning, ideally with content application. The unspoken – I need to have some tangible evidence that students were looking at the science here. I’ll need some kind of artifacts at the very least. A lesson plan and some kind of assignments…  

So let me run this down. But first, let’s look at that trailer one more time…

Tangibles: What’s Important to the Physics Teacher

The “Real” Science: Marvel has a consistent track record of using science consultants on their films and television series to make sure what was hand-waving gobbledygook in the original comics actually makes some kind of scientific-sounding sense on screen. Perhaps one of the more famous encounters between real science and Marvel “science” came when Sean Carroll, the science consultant for Thor suggested that the Rainbow Bridge that Heimdall guards isn’t some kind of Asgardian “magic,” but rather Einstein-Rosen Bridges (wormholes) that are controlled by a technology we cannot yet understand. That’s what Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) studies in the film.

By tying comic book science in to real world science early in the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Carroll helped to establish the Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law as one of the guiding principles of the MCU: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Okay, you may have quibbles with that,

If you’re familiar with the Marvel films – think about how things have been rolling since Thor and then Avengers – the fantastic tech from the Chituari and the Kree? The Infinity Stones? The tech that Toomes and his gang stole in Spider-Man: Homecoming? They’re all treated as mysteries that science can solve.

Long story short – in Marvel films there will be science, and some of it, at least, will have a real world basis.

How Am I Going to Use This in Class? My students will be required to write after the movie, and this will be part of it. What real physics did they see or hear about in the film, either what we’ve covered, or what they had to research? Explain what it’s like in real life, and explain how it was used in the film.

The Imagined Science: Okay, all that said, these are fantastic movies with fantastic science that can only exist in a superhero/fictional world. But – does it mean what’s seen can never exist in our world? Part of our charge as teachers, and it’s a part I take very seriously, is to prepare our students for the future…a future that they will create. Yeah – I’m one of those teachers.

I passed my Google Cardboard around the room when I got it, to “ooohs” and “ahhhs.” But afterwards, I asked them how this could be used in life, in science, in teaching, and why in the world would they ever want to live in a world without it, or something like it. It was their job, I told them, to make sure the future included this kind of technology.

I fully believe we, at least in part, imagine our future. For this, I will always point to Star Trek, both the original series and The Next Generation’s family of series. We all walk around with communicators in our pockets, we work and play on PADDs, robots roam our nearby planet, the tricorder will be here in probably 5-ish years, and “transporter” tech is a hotbed of research. I used to bemoan the fact that our engineers and technologists were raised on Star Trek, but there’s no “Star Trek” or its equivalent out there now to inspire them to create a cool future. But then I looked around a little more.

It may hurt as we teachers get older, but we’re only a few years from a major technology breakthrough where the lead developer/inventor will say something like, “I remember as a kid, I saw the Iron Man movie, and that idea of an ___________ always stuck with me, so…I guess I just made one.” Okay, maybe it won’t be that clear cut, but generationally, movies like the Marvel movies, Star Wars, and other great science fiction are having an effect. Our students are starting to imagine a future. Okay, it won’t all be branded with Star Trek technology, but still…

Black Panther is, at least from the trailers, technology heavy. Sure, there’s going to be a little hand-waving mysticism, but there looks to be gobs of future or near-future tech. Special effects candy for the eyes? Probably. Inspiration for my students who already have a STEM bias? You bet.

How Am I Going to Use This in Class? Like the real science, my students will be required to pick out a piece of imagined tech – something that’s “near-future,” and offer some explanations. Vehicles “floating?” Give me some ideas on how it might work. Vibranium absorbing energy? Okay, what’s going on there, and what discoveries/materials/better understandings of current science do we need to make something like it? I’m planting seeds, because, in the future, after that lead developer says that the inspiration came from Marvel movie “science,” I don’t think any of us would mind if they said, “And I’d really like to thank my teacher…”

The Extreme Physics: For this, my students will work in groups and try their hand at what we do here at TheScienceOf.org They’ll pick a scene with some standard or over the top physics, and explain it in terms of forces and motion. To these ends, I already have one student swearing he’s going to explain the car jump featured in many of the trailers, and I’ve wished him good luck.

From the trailers, the movie looks to be full of opportunities to diagram forces, analyze motion, explain the extreme nature of what’s going on from a physics perspective. In effect, they’ll write and solve their own problem, based on a scene or stunt in the film. For the value of this – look at some of the Physics articles here on the site, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Every scene or stunt that  looks to be something easily understood always has layers and levels to it that can be dissected out.

At worst, this aspect will be an analysis of a multi-part problem. At best, this aspect will resemble problem-based learning, in that they’ll bite off a little more than they are comfortable chewing (at first), and have to dig in to learn some new approaches and skills in order to solve the problem they’ve selected.

Expert in My Back Pocket: Doing what we do here at thescienceof.org, I’m fortunate to have contacts in many fields of science, and many – if not all of them – are well versed in any number of superhero or science fiction universes.

After we see the film, we’ll be Skyping with a materials scientist who loves the Marvel films and both the science and “science” contained therein. While all my students will be expected to take part in the conversation and discussion, we won’t be limited only to the movie. As with everything here on The Science Of…, the film’s scenes and science will be used as a springboard to talk about real science and upcoming developments that may pave the road to making the fictional things we’ve all just seen real.

And just as important, my students will get to interact with a working researcher who breaks stereotypes about researchers. Yes, they do cutting-edge research in their lab, write papers and all the other “scientist” stuff, but also, they’re passionate about other things as well. They’re a big old nerd and proud of it. While I’ll mention this more in the “Intangibles” coming up, I think that’s extremely important for high schoolers to see. High school is a time of change, a time of figuring out who you are. I try to live as an example of this – and so does the scientist who’ll be Skyping in – that you can still be you as you grow up and change. The grown-up world isn’t about smothering who you are now and killing your passions in order to mush you into some predetermined role of “grown-up.” 

I think it’s a good thing for students to see us…authentic nerds. As John Green describes our tribe: “…because nerds like us are allowed to be unironically enthusiastic about stuff… Nerds are allowed to love stuff, like jump-up-and-down-in-the-chair-can’t-control-yourself love it.”

That’s a good thing and nothing to be ashamed of.

The Problems: This is blending in with some of the intangible, but after seeing the movie, we’ll all have a common, shared experience. I’ll have a new set of scenarios about which I can develop physics problems that will benefit and demonstrate increased engagement – which is the name of the game.

I anticipate many, “Wait a minute – remember that part where…” questions about Black Panther as we move on through our topics during the remainder of the year. I’m sure I’ll get them.

The Intangible: What’s Important to the Teacher

While everything above will offer me some artifact of learning that I can show administration or use for my own data, the following…won’t. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important. It’s just a little more subjective and are more about a feeling than any actual evidence.

What It Means: I teach at a Title I school. For those who don’t, Title I is a Federal program that’s related to lunches, but basically (in my part of the country), it’s an indicator of a high minority population and high poverty – and everything that brings. While my IB class is part of the “magnet” element of our school, it’s still a blend of students coming in from all parts of the county and our “homegrown” students. Safe to say it’s a very heterogeneous mix that leans toward a high minority population.

Here’s my thing, I could feel that Black Panther was something…different compared to other Marvel heroes from his introduction in Captain America: Civil War, and that feeling was only strengthened by following the production news for the Black Panther film and finally the trailers. This feeling was confirmed by listening to my students talk about the movie once the trailer hit (being a heavily geek/nerd class, we’ll watch trailers for Marvel and science fiction movies at the end of the period on the day of release…this is the class that applauded at the end of the trailer for Avengers: Infinity War).

Look, we can take our students to all the Selmas, Marshalls and Hidden Figures that come out – and that’s a good thing, don’t get  me wrong. But they tell the same story, and it’s one minority and African-American students are familiar with, unfortunately. But what about Black Panther? What about its story? What will they feel when they look at that screen and see themselves, both boys and girls, as strong, smart, determined, and powerful heroes, not marginalized characters, or characters fighting to overcome some larger institution that has stacked the deck against them?

Jesse Holland wrote about this for the AP earlier this month and his story quoted a father, Glen Greezy:

“As the father of two little black boys I’m super excited to have a superhero that looks like them on screen,” said Glen Greezy of New York City, who plans to hit Times Square and see the movie on opening weekend along with more than 900 of his friends on Facebook.

“Other superheroes are great and I see their movies too, but something about having a black man as the main character in a superhero movie is extra appealing.”

And writing about the commercial for the Black Panther toy line for io9, Charles Pulliam-Moore wrote:

Because characters of color have historically been relatively marginalized in movies, comics, and television, toys and commercials like this simply haven’t existed before which is a shame in and of itself but has deeper consequences. Oftentimes, the first step towards becoming a fan of something or part of a larger fandom is finding a character that you can relate to when you’re young and then seeing your relationship with them validated by the world around you.

That feedback loop of identification, and then affirmation, is what creates the ideas that “I can be a hero too” and “this fandom can be a place for me, as well.” Toys and commercials like these, perhaps even more than the movies they’re promoting, can have a way of creating lasting impressions and memories on kids for whom they’re a gateway into a larger world of fantasy and scifi. Suddenly, they—along with T’Challa and co.—are the ones defeating villains and protecting the planet. That kind of direct representation can have a profound impact on one’s self-esteem in the long term.

Yes, these are just toys, but at the same time, they’re so much more. They’re an invitation—an affirmation—and something I wish I’d had when I was growing up.

This excitement is something that’s hard to put a finger on, but it’s there. I can feel it in my class, and it’s more than just, “We’re getting out of school to go to a movie!”

I’m anxious to watch this movie with my students, but I’m also anxious to see who my students are after seeing this movie. To watch my students change and grow? That’s kind of what I got into teaching for in the first place.

The Practical Side: So You Want to Do Something Like This Too?

Every school system will have its own rules and regulations for field trips, and speaking honestly, getting permission to take students to see a film can be a hard sell with administration, especially if it isn’t a documentary or historical retelling. And that’s even before you get into the logistics. Here are some tips for giving it a try at your own school:

Float the Idea Early and Have a Plan: The idea of going to see Black Panther was sparked by a student who asked the question out loud in class. I’d been thinking about it, but after that…it was real (again, I have the reputation of being the teacher that will take kids to a movie if it’s tied back to what we’re doing in school…) That was back in early December.

I thought it through and put my plan together (which was most of the ideas in this article) and spoke with an administrator the first week back after Winter Break. I got the approval I was hoping for, and got rolling. Ultimately, all I needed was a lesson plan that showed how the film would tie in to physics, but I know they’ll be grateful if I have other artifacts on hand as well.

The Theater: Go to the website of your local theater and find out who you contact for Group Sales. Mine is AMC, and they ask that you don’t call the theater directly. Let them know it’s a school trip (AMC has a “Field Trip” option for “Type of Group”) which means you have some specific needs in regards to days and time. The Group Sales people may take some time getting back to you (AMC requests 7 days…so even though I have plenty of time, I’m a little nervous, regardless), so make sure you’re working well in advance. Also – keep track of your film’s release date. The Martian was moved forward by over a month on me, which caused me to do some quick rescheduling. But it all worked out.

And be sure to double and triple check on your details with the theater. For one of my trips, the theater thought I was getting 3D (with an upcharge) but I only set up (and charged my kids) for 2D. The theater was terrific and ate the cost for the glasses, but it was a little dicey for a day or two.

Don’t expect to get in on opening day – I usually plan our trip for the week after opening.

Speaking of the theater, I like to make sure that the concession stand is open or allow the students to sign up for a pre-packaged snack deal. The theater themselves aren’t making much on a group sales group, so the concessions allow them to get a little more money back. Plus, what’s a movie without popcorn?

And of course, make sure your students don’t leave a mess. The better you are to the theater, the more likely they’ll be happy to see you bring groups back in coming years. Don’t be one of those groups that gets banned from a location because your students weren’t on their best behavior.

The Money Thing: What I said above about being a Title I school? Yeah. Group Sales will bring the ticket price down, but at least for field trips in my district, I have to pay for the bus and the driver, which adds another dollar or three on to the total amount. Usually, I’m asking about $7.00 – $8.00 per student. While that may seem doable on the surface, you may find out it’s an absolutely not as far as some students are concerned.

As best as possible, try to schedule your trip with consideration of paydays, but understand that there may be some students for whom whatever price you bring it down to it’s just impossible. Talk to other teachers and administration for donations, plan early enough and run a Donors Choose page, find a sponsor, but do what you can.

Leave no student behind. After all, the one you leave behind may be the one who watches the movie, sees Vibranium, and says, “Oh – wait – I know how to do that…” which leads them down a road of discovery, invention, and increased engagement in your class.   

All in all – I’m taking my class to see Black Panther, because we’ll use it to learn about physics and it will be fun. School and learning being something that students describe as fun? I’ll go with that any day of the 180 days that they’re mine. 

Update: This is tremendous. 

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