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University Beat

Award Entry Best Writing: STEM Superheroes the Sequel

This is University Beat; I'm Mark Schreiner.

It seems like a normal day at Tampa’s Woodbridge Elementary School…but something is in the air.

In one classroom, students sit on the floor and restlessly wait.

(sound of heroes entering room under)

Then, faster than a speeding bullet, the Scientific League of Superheroes is here!

"I need some excitement, you guys want to mess around with this?" (students yell and cheer)

In walks a pair of spandex-clad characters: MegaByte, a hulking 6-foot plus tall man clad in a black and blue outfit with a large M in the center of his chest…a blue cape flows behind him, along with a mane of long, curly hair.

His smaller companion, Sublimation, boasts purple hair, with black and purple the predominant colors of her outfit.

Both wear large boots, utility belts Batman would envy and small masks that cover the top halves of their faces to conceal their identities…their not-so-secret identities!

"My name is Samuel DuPont…

…and I have a PhD in chemical engineering…

…and I’m also Megabyte!"

"I’m Audrey Buttice…

…and I have a PhD in chemical engineering…

…but I’m also Sublimation!"

(sound of demo underneath)

About three years ago, as part of a USF program, the two gave demonstrations of STEM-related activities – that's science, technology, engineering and math – to local schools.

"The kids were excited, but then I would leave and they would never see me again next year or the year after, and how long can you remember something like that? So we wanted to make something that was more permanent, something that resonated in the kid’s minds."

DuPont says they considered costume concepts such as pirates, clowns and even lab rats, before inspiration hit them like Shazam’s lightning bolt – superheroes!

"They’re good citizens, you know, 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 the pair, along with chemical engineering major Robert Bair, a.k.a. Superconductor, formed The Superhero Training Network and began shooting a series of videos about three USF graduate students who gained superpowers in a lab accident.

(video clip: "The exosphere is the last layer of the atmosphere before outer space!" (narration continues under, bridge into demo audio under)

In addition to the videos, the heroes make regular visits to 23 Hillsborough County elementary schools, where they give hands-on presentations, like this demonstration of pH levels using a variety of chemicals and cabbage juice.

(demo audio up, group countdown: "Three, two, one!" Child: "Pour!" (Children laugh) Megabyte: "Woah!" Sublimation: "So what's happening to the cabbage juice, what color was it in the beginning?" Children: "Purple." Sublimation: "It was purple, right? No matter what we added, did it turn the same color?" Children: "No."

Woodbridge fifth graders Jocelyn Jimenez and Danny Severino both rave about the experience.

"Younger kids don’t usually get to do hands-on. But once they do, they enjoy it for some reason. They just like getting dirty, and, I don't know, it just seems fun."

"Science has always been to me really fun, so it just brings that to another level."

(demo audio back under)

But it’s more than just fun – it’s also about learning, which statistics show students are doing. DuPont says they’re reviewing tests taken at the beginning and middle of the school year by the 1700 students they work with and comparing them to a similar sized control group.

"We’re seeing that some of the topics that we’re covering and the materials that we provided in the classroom, both through books and DVD’s, we’re seeing marked gains when we compare some of those benchmarks, which is a good positive start."

But as Spider-Man can tell you, being a superhero – even a smart one – doesn’t pay the bills. Buttice says the League has launched a fundraising campaign on the website, Kickstarter, to raise 7500 dollars to produce their next series of videos and instructional materials.

"So we definitely want people to come by and not only support us but support our students of the future in STEM education in our country, which we all know is a really big deal right now."

And DuPont says even this financial challenge teaches a lesson they try to pass along to the students – if you want something in life, you have to work hard for it.

"I think that it’s enriching. Because, 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."

If you’d like to see video of the Scientific League of Superheroes at work, as well as a link to the Kickstarter campaign, click on the University Beat link at our webpage, WUSF-dot-org.

For University Beat, I'm Mark Schreiner.