STEM Superheroes Kickstart Next Phase of Work

Apr 11, 2014

The Scientific League of Superheroes, MegaByte and Sublimation, demonstrate principles of pH to Woodbridge Elementary students.
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

Since we're going to talk science and math here, let's start with an equation: (Bill Nye the Science Guy + Batman) x 3 = The Scientific League of Superheroes. 

We introduced you to the trio of University of South Florida graduate students who don superhero costumes to teach STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) concepts in local elementary schools two years ago. 

Now they're back for a sequel - and this time they're looking for some help from their fans.

But before we get to that, let's recap the origins - both the real-life and the comic book ones.

A little over three years ago, Samuel DuPont and Audrey Buttice were USF Ph.D. students. As part of a National Science Foundation-funded fellowship program, they would visit elementary schools around the Tampa area and do science demonstrations. But Buttice says that program didn't have the strongest effect.

A dry ice demonstration.
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

"We were going once a week, the kids were excited, but then I would leave and they would never see me again the next year or the year after, and how long can you remember something like that?" she says. "So we wanted to make something that was more permanent, something that resonated in the kid’s minds and made them in the future understand that if they want to be a scientist, they can."

They thought some form of themed video that could mass produce and distribute was the answer, so they considered costume concepts such as pirates, clowns and even lab rats. 

DuPont says inspiration hit them like Shazam’s lightning bolt while they waited in line one day at Disney World.

"One of us said "superheroes" and I think both of us started staring at the sky, and we’re in line and it’s really hot out and we’re like, 'Wow, that’s a really good idea,'" DuPont says.  "Because superheroes are pinnacles of the society, they’re good citizens, they’re always trying to do the right thing, they use science and math all the time because they’re either super-powered so there’s something scientifically strange about them or sometimes you have superheroes that are just really good with technology, like Batman."

So, joined by fellow student Robert Bair, they came up with The Scientific League of Superheroes (their team) and The Superhero Training Network (the group that young students can join, as well as the formal name of their business).

Megabyte and Sublimation talk to a class of fifth graders at Woodbridge Elementary School.
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

They also created a back story: a lab accident gave the three normal scientists super powers.

DuPont became MegaByte, part-android with a computer in his brain, giving him enhanced intelligence and strength. Buttice became Sublimation, with the ability to change from a corporal form into a gaseous one, enabling her to sneak into small spaces or under doors, as well as disappear. And Bair became Superconductor, taking on the ability to conduct heat and electricity.

When we first met the League, they were sharing their lessons with fifth graders in four Hillsborough County schools. In the nearly two years since, the Network has grown to include 23 Hillsborough County schools and almost 1,700 students.

In that time, Buttice and DuPont received their graduate degrees in engineering (Bair is still a year or two away from receiving his), while also completing six 20-plus minute long videos, along with two accompanying "training manuals."

While the videos and manuals set up a comic book world pitting the League against villains like Big Bang, Maelstrom and their archenemy, Dr. Entropy, they're also materials that compliment about half a year's worth of fifth grade science curriculum for the Hillsborough County School District.

Robert Bair, a.k.a. Superconductor, appears via video from India during MegaByte and Sublimation's visit to Woodbridge Elementary.
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

"They get to see two sides of the superhero: they get to see them in their costumes and dressed up and on a mission, but on the flipside, in the videos, they get to see them actually with their lab coats and working at USF," says Adriana Wilsey, a teacher at Woodbridge Elementary School, where Buttice and DuPont recently visited a class full of "superhero trainees" (Bair was studying in India, but appeared - not in costume - via a video shot in a hotel stairwell).

This time, the heroes' classroom visit included a combination Jeopardy-style game where students answered science-related questions, along with a number of hands-on experiments, where they saw how liquid soap acts as a dispersant in milk and used colored cabbage juice and chemicals to learn about pH levels.

In one hands-on Superhero Training Network lesson, Woodbridge 5th graders learn about the dispersant properties of dish soap using colored milk.
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

"It’s just that curiosity that students have and to build upon it and say, 'Hey it’s okay, let’s test out these ideas and why is something happening?’ so I think we teach them that they can go into different avenues to find answers to their curiosity," Wilsey says.

That experiential learning means much to the students.

"Younger kids don’t usually get to do hands-on. But once (we) do, (we) enjoy it," Woodbridge fifth grader Jocelyn Jimenez says. "It inspired me to study more in science and make science fun. They have a way of making kids enjoy science. Some people may not enjoy science in ways that some people teach them; but the superheroes find ways to make children enjoy it."

And to make sure children continue enjoying it, the Network is holding a campaign on the website, Kickstarter, to raise $7,500 for what they're calling "Phase Two." While most of the final six episodes of the first "season" are already shot, money is needed to duplicate those DVD's and produce the accompanying "training manuals."

"With our Kickstarter campaign, we're trying to get people excited about our program," Buttice says. "They get some really cool superhero-themed rewards for coming by and supporting our program, like superhero masks and signed scripts and pictures of the superheroes and behind the scenes making of books and things like that."

"We made this because it was a passion of ours, it’s something that we really care about, we care about education," she adds. "We care about students feeling comfortable and confident when they’re doing math and science, so that if they want to pursue a degree in the future in STEM fields that they maintain and they stay with it and there’s some value at the end for them."

The League already has plans for "Phase Three."

"What we really want to see in the Superhero Training Network as we move forward in the future, is not just a video series and books and activities, but a network where students across the country or even just across the street can communicate through an online forum and be able to do experiments remotely - have discussions and have this collaboration," DuPont says. "This is why we call it “The Superhero Training Network,” because we want it to, at the end, be a network for learning science, math and engineering."

Sublimation and MegaByte finish up their demonstration by combining dry ice and cabbage juice.
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

At the same time, students also learn one more important lesson - one the heroes have learned for themselves.

"At the end of the day, learning and educating yourself about all these things that you have to do to get what you want to do in life - what you’re passionate about - is a natural process, no matter what you’re doing," DuPont says.

"And that’s another thing that we try to do with the Superhero Network, is instill a concept that you may want to do “this thing,” but to do it, you’re going to have to learn all these things that you’d never thought you learn," DuPont says. "And even if that thing is “become an engineer” or “be an astronaut,” you may have to learn parts of the world around you that you never thought you’d have to learn."