‘Marvel-ous Makers’ Bring Black Panther-Inspired Creations to the Classroom

EdSurge Podcast

‘Marvel-ous Makers’ Bring Black Panther-Inspired Creations to the Classroom

By Jenny Abamu     Feb 13, 2018

‘Marvel-ous Makers’ Bring Black Panther-Inspired Creations to the Classroom

Social media feeds are lighting up with hashtags such as #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe and #BlackPantherLive celebrating the release of a Hollywood adaptation of the groundbreaking comic series, Black Panther.

Educators are also getting into the fandom, seizing on opportunities the film creates to teach students about empowerment, culture and even the importance of learning science and engineering.

Netia McCray is one of the educators using the Black Panther film as an educational opportunity. She is the founder of a non-profit called Mbadika, which means 'Ideas' in Kimbundu, a language spoken in the northern region of Angola. EdSurge talked with McCray about her new YouTube series where she's working with makers to teach students how to use design software and 3D printers to recreate artifacts from the Black Panther film.

McCray also addressed the significance of showcasing this film during Black History Month, why the main actor chose to use an African accent and how a fictional film like this can have real implications on the empowerment of black women in STEM.

Listen to the podcast or read highlights from the conversation below (which have been edited and condensed for clarity).

EdSurge: Can you briefly explain a bit about your organization, why you took on this project and what it entails?

McCray: Mbadika is a nonprofit organization. We focus on helping kids turn ideas in their heads into reality—whether that's through traditional product design and development, or through learning rapid-prototyping techniques. Students use what is in their houses and make something that looks like or works like a product they have in mind.

I'd been a comic book fan, a secret a comic book fan, for a very long time. And when the trailer dropped late last year, around October, my colleagues and I were like, "Wait, this film is going to happen? This film is really going to happen?" They are actually taking the Wakanda that we grew up with as a fantasy land, where all these engineers and scientists take advantage of this elusive material called 'Vibranium' and create the most technologically advanced ships and weapons known to society. This is gonna happen in the Marvel universe? We need to figure out how to be involved.

So because we teach kids product design and development, we racked our brains around the Christmas holidays, thinking, ‘What items do we see in the trailer that we can help kids recreate using things in their house or use digital fabrication tools, such as 3-D printers and laser cutters?’

I say the universe worked in a very weird way because during this time when I was kind of just joking about this with my friends and we thought we'd just do this as a little side-project, I happened to visit Autodesk headquarters to see a friend. And when I was there, I just told my friend about this idea she was like, "Oh my God! We have to pitch this to my boss!" And I was like, "Okay, that's a little weird."

And if you don't know, Autodesk makes a lot of the software that engineers, designers and innovators use to create these kinds of objects. They create Tinkercad, which makes 3D objects for your 3D printer, et cetera. It was a whirlwind. My friend's boss was like, "You know what, this is a great idea. If we can do this in January and have it out in time for the film, let's do it." And here we are. We actually got together and did it.

So what group of students are you focusing on with this project?

So our focus is going to be late elementary to middle-school students. I'd also like to say that just because we're looking at kids in that age bracket doesn't mean anyone can or cannot do this. But my passion is in that age range because they're the most excited, and also it's the age range that women of color are kind of discouraged from being in STEM. We wanted to make sure that right when they're turning away from STEM, to say, 'Let's keep you hooked. Let's make sure you still have an interest in this for a couple more years.'

You all are creating all sorts of things; jewelry, spears and other artifacts from the film. What is the value of getting students to recreate these things? What are you hoping they will learn in the process?

A lot of students don't understand that product design and development is in almost everything that you do. And that is a key concept of STEM—finding a problem and developing a solution for that, and it doesn't have to be in the laboratory.

So for example, with Queen Ramonda's crown, most kids don't know the actual crown from the film was 3D printed using CAD, or computer-aided design software. They just thought it was like a very talented sculptor or an artist. They never piece together that artist still has to use STEM concepts.

What I want to show is that all the things you see in the film that captivate you, that may not be traditional engineering, or what we think of when we think of engineering or STEM, actually contains core concepts from that. And I hope it makes kids realize, and adults, that STEM isn't some scary word that you have to have a certain level of knowledge, resources or skill to adopt it into whatever you're passionate about.

I hope that seeing me, my colleague Erica or our guests who are fellow makers on this YouTube series helps students realize that STEM's in everything, and here's how you could have it in your life as well.

This film comes out this month, which is also Black History Month. And it being released at this time coalesces around this theme of Black empowerment and cultural awareness. These are subjects that the main actor of the film, Chadwick Boseman, who plays T'Challa, or Black Panther, is very passionate about. I'm going to play a clip from an interview that he did with CNET. It's really interesting to me because he talks about why he chose not to use a European accent in the film, and then I'll go into my next question.

Boseman: There's no way in the world he would speak with a European accent. If I did that, I would be conveying a white supremacist idea of what being educated is. And if he's the ruler of a nation, there are certain moments when he has to speak to his people, he has to galvanize to his people. And there's no way I can speak to my people, who have never been conquered by Europeans, with a European voice.

He says the reason he used the African accent was to get away from a stereotype, that says to be educated is to be Western or European. Now I understand that stereotypes and nuances surrounding culture and education are complex. I've been told, "You talk like a white person." When I was young, I was teased for my accent because my parents are Nigerian immigrants. And the pervasive thought is that for one to be educated you should, frankly saying, speak more white. But I do see a lot of people in the Black community, and other communities, pushing back on this narrative. What are your thoughts about these themes in the film around cultural awareness and education? And how does that translate into the way you're teaching students?

It's perfect that the film is coming out for Black History Month. I put all my other work aside to work on this project. One of the things I had to explain to a couple of my colleagues, who didn't understand why I was so passionate about this, they were like, "Okay, is it because the film is called Black Panther and Black History Month, and you're trying to help black kids?" And it's like, "No."

Black History Month, when I was a child, was always taught that it was for me to relive the suffering of my people, that I was always that person who all these bad things happened to, and I didn't have control over my destiny. The reason why I love the Black Panther comic series so much is that it was one of the few escapes a kid can use, or a kid can engage in, that allows for them to imagine a world in which people who look like them, who share their ancestry, actually were able to control their destiny. That they were smart, intelligent and capable of creating this society built with their values.

So I agree with Chadwick when he was talking about, 'I specifically didn't use this particular accent because I didn't want it to show supremacy.' Because our culture sometimes does portray us as capable, or we can be on the same level or even better.

The fact that the kingdom of Wakanda that's pictured in the film is considered the most technologically advanced kingdom in the Marvel cinematic universe was something that made me go, "Yes, we could even go be beyond what we see in the world around us." I just feel like, even if you're young or old or what have you, this movie's impact in terms of that debate, showing that there is a possibility that we can rise above, do better and that we're capable, is a powerful message.

This morning on Twitter, there's a hashtag that's trending right now, "Why are you excited to see the Black Panther, or what the Black Panther means to me." And I posted a tweet that the Black Panther film means to me is seeing women and girls who look like me building the most technologically advanced weapons the world has ever seen and being portrayed positively while doing it. This is what that film means to me as an engineer. And immediately I had people sending me tweets like, "Oh you're so stupid, you think this is the real world. Africa isn't that cool. Y'all ain't that capable of building stuff, y'all can't make weapons." And I'm like, "Listen, I have an education, I build stuff. I can show you how to build stuff."

And if you're coming at me like this on Twitter, I can't imagine a little child who's just getting into this or a little girl who is like, "Oh, I want to build stuff." And having someone tell her, ‘you're not capable.’ So I agree, this is one of the few times where I'm like, "Yes Chadwick! Yes!"

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