Bringing Wakandan Science Into The Classroom
Okay, so if you haven’t heard, Black Panther is now the first superhero movie ever to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. (UPDATE: And it won three! For best costume design, production design, and original music score.)
This is huge!
And it really highlights just how important this movie has been, both historically and especially culturally. So it’s no wonder that teachers are using it in their classrooms. Education Week recently reported that teachers are using Black Panther to teach Afrofuturism, cultural representation, and other related topics.
But what about science? After all, Wakanda is a high tech, high science society, and this is Teachable Sci-fi. So why don’t we take a look at vibranium, the fictional metal at the heart of Black Panther. We know from previous Marvel movies that vibranium is stronger than steel, a third of the weight, and is competely “vibration absorbent”, but in Black Panther we learn that vibranium not only absorbs energy, it can also store and release it, and is therefore the power source for all Wakandan technology.
Now there are videos out there on the science of vibranium, suggesting that Black Panther’s vibranium suit takes kinetic energy – from say bullet hits or getting rolled by a rhino – and stores it as elastic potential energy. Almost as if there were millions of tiny springs inside the suit, storing energy as they compress, and then releasing it as they expand.
So how can we simulate this inside a classroom, and according to the Next Generation Science Standards? Well, if we break it down, it’s all about energy conversion, and there are two standards related to energy conversion in the Next Gen Standards. Both are similar in that students design and build a machine that converts energy from one form to another.
And what would an example of such a machine look like? What about a Nerf gun? For example, take Shuri’s gauntlets. Like the Panther’s suit, they use vibranium to store and release energy. And in real life, the Nerf gauntlet does the exact same thing. You cock it by pulling back the handle, which converts the kinetic energy of the pull into elastic potential energy in a spring inside the gauntlet, and stores it there. Then, when you pull the trigger, that potential energy is converted back into kinetic energy as the spring releases, compressing the air in a cylinder inside the gauntlet, causing a build up of pressure until it forces out the dart, boom!
You can demonstrate this in a simpler way with a rubber band straw gun. There’s an example on Youtube, where the user builds a projectile using straws and a rubber band launcher. The rubber band stores energy the same way a spring does, and then converts it back into kinetic energy for the straw projectile when it’s released.
Another example is a cool little device called a rollback can. There’s a page on education.com that shows how to build one. The rollback also uses a rubber band to store energy, and then releases it as kinetic energy in the opposite direction of the can’s initial roll. It’s a neat little trick, and if you want you can have the students decorate it like some of Black Panther’s tech, like say the EMP discs, so that they can have their very own piece of Wakandan technology.
But elastic potential energy is not the only possibility for how vibranium stores energy. It could also be a chemical process. We see this all the time whenever we recharge the batteries in our electronic devices. Recharging converts electrical energy from an outlet into chemical potential energy inside the battery which is then converted back to some other form of energy as the battery discharges. So what about building a hand crank generator, which substitutes the kinetic energy of a crank handle for the electric outlet?
Now keep in mind that the energy in these examples is fairly small, whereas in Black Panther the energy released by his suit is very large. This is because, of course, kinetic energy increases with mass and the square of velocity. And Bullets have a very large velocity… and rhinos have a very large mass.
So if any students don’t see the connections or aren’t impressed by the scale of the experiments, remind them that, as they said in the movie Prometheus, “big things have small beginnings.” The principles at work on a small scale inside their classroom are the same ones that govern huge windmills and massive dams, which convert the energy of roaring winds and raging rivers into electrical energy, enough to power whole cities. And they’re the same principles in the fictional world of Black Panther, where the energy of bullets and rhinos is converted into awesome explosions. In other words, they are mastering forces inside their classroom that govern the entire universe, both the Marvel universe, and the real one.
That’s all for now. We would love to hear how you’re using Black Panther to teach science to your children, ideas for future episodes, and anything else. We’re constantly playing with the format of Teachable Sci-fi, so if you have any suggestions please let us know.
So long for now, and be sure to tune in next time where a special guest will discuss Ant-Man and the superhero science of scale. Thanks for reading!