Pow! Zap! Crash! – How to incorporate STEM content into an amazing Superhero Science event!

Christina Akers
superheroes at Science Museum of Minnesota

Little Shop of Nano...

If you’re not familiar with the film or Broadway show, "Little Shop of Horrors," you may not realize what happens when you feed and nurture a strange plant that ultimately grows, well…beyond needing you. The rest of the plot of this classic tale is irrelevant, but the idea of nurturing something until it can stand on its own without your care and attention is not…

The Science Museum of Minnesota (SMM) held "Social Science:  Superhero Science" on August 6, 2015. Myself and NISE Net project lead, Catherine McCarthy were in attendance for what seemed like a clear theme, as Spiderman, the Joker and other spandex-clad 21-and-up visitors filled the museum lobby. However, the strangest site of the night appeared not in a mask or cape, but instead in the evening’s program. As we explored the map of events for that night, we noticed an uncommon theme…NANO. Nano EVERYWHERE!!! Nano activities had literally taken over the museum! There were activities on biomimicry, the power of invisibility, body armor, as well as nanoscientists doing their own activities on size and scale! The museum literally had NISE Net nano activities around every corner.

So… why so startling? Nano activities are used regularly at the Science Museum of Minnesota. In fact, you can find nano programming on a daily basis somewhere in the museum. Also, nisenet.org is full of activities that are great for year-round use, many with suggestions for special or seasonal programming use (http://www.nisenet.org/seasons).  So seeing nano on our floor is not uncommon. What caught us off-guard was to see such a museum-wide application of nano activities without our personal involvement in the planning or presentation of these activities. The museum had truly embraced and absorbed these programs – we no longer had to be the sole force putting nano activities on our floor.

Finally, after ten years of "feeding" nano into our programming, our nano program has finally grown bigger and stronger than the few staff implementing it. It’s a proud and humbling moment that leaves us looking forward to even more museum-wide takeovers of our little nano project!

Resources for hosting your own super hero themed event:

Hands-on Activities

Heat Transfer: You ARE a human torch

Heat is transferred between different materials as they come into contact with one another.  How well heat is absorbed depends on the materials’ thermal conductivity.  Observe and experience heat transfer in action with this table-top experiment.

The Power of invisibility:

In spite of the name, this is an experiment that relies on your observational prowess.  Take a look and discover what you cannot see.  It’s not magic, it’s science.

Biomimicry: Walking on Walls

Q: How does that sneaky Spidey do it? 

A: With a little help from the Van der Waals force and nanoscale-size hairs of course! Still not convinced? Try this sticky experiment and see for yourself!

Body Armor

Move over, clunky exo-suit. Nanotechnologists and materials scientists are reimagining how body armor looks and feels: fabrics that are flexible, lightweight, and will protect against high-impact projectiles. Oobleck looks like a liquid but acts as a solid – check it out!

Size and Scale*

Some superheroes get their powers by being extra large, or extra small.  What would your life be like if you were suddenly expanded to twice your original size? Or shrunk to a tiny size?

*Also try having visitors experiment with dropping small objects such as pennies or paperclips into different viscosity fluids – corn syrup, baby oil, water, etc.,  to demonstrate obstacles facing tiny superheroes such as AntMan.

More Resources

Building with Biology

Science of the Avengers

video by American Chemical Society – ACS Reactions

Can Radiation Give You Superpowers?

video by American Chemical Society – ACS Reactions

Popular Science article, "The Science of Superheroes"