How to Teach STEM with Pop Culture References

How to Teach STEM with Pop Culture References

Read Time: 4 minutes

We spend an enormous amount of time-consuming popular culture every single day. A 2010 study found that on average, kids between the ages of 8 and 18 spend upwards of 7.5 hours every day navigating this media. Why not take that time and turn it into something they can use to learn? While you don’t have to be ‘in the know’ for all of the major fads currently taking the world by storm, pop culture can be an incredibly useful tool for teaching today’s youth. Here are a few tips and tricks to help you incorporate popular culture references when you teach STEM lessons.

Actually Watch Your Sources

We can’t reinforce this enough — if you’re planning to use pop culture to teach STEM in your classroom, make sure you know your source material. There are plenty of sources that break down the physics fictional world. You’ll find everything from superheroes to the Fast and Furious movie series and everything in between. However, if you don’t take the time to watch the movies and learn about the characters, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Your students have watched the movies. They read the books. They listened to the music. You’re not going to be able to teach them anything if they’re too busy laughing at your lack of knowledge.

Yes, it might take you a while — especially if you’re working with Marvel characters. Even if you only stick to movie physics, that’s 23 movies, each at more than 2 hours long. If you don’t include Spider-Man Far From Home, the Infinity Saga would take you 59 hours and 7 minutes to watch. Adding in FFH will bring the total up to 61 hours and 16 minutes.

Find a Connection

With some pop culture sources, finding the connection to STEM will be easy. Iron Man is all about engineering, and Spider-Man plays with physics for breakfast. The Fast and Furious movies are steeped in momentum and velocity. With other sources, the connection might not be so obvious.

Take a look at fantasy stories, like the Lord of the Rings trilogy. You can follow the journey of the Fellowship and use it to calculate things like altitude as they climb the Pass of Caradhras – and meteorology, following the massive snowstorm that drove them into the Mines of Moria. You can calculate the area of Middle Earth, and map out Frodo’s journey, calculating the distance he had to travel to take the ring from Hobbiton to Mount Doom.

That’s just one example, and one we pulled off the top of our head. You can turn nearly any pop culture reference into a STEM teaching opportunity if you look hard enough to find a connection.

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Take It To The Next Level

Once you have an idea, it’s time to take it to the next level. Turn your pop culture reference into a lesson plan. Be ready to show a clip of the movie, show, or song you’re referencing. If you’re tapping into a book, you’ll need to have a copy of it available for your students to look over.

This is where you’ll want to tap into internet resources – a lot of educators have already done the hard part for you, and are happy to share what they’ve learned.

Don’t Overcomplicate Things

Don’t overthink things and don’t overcomplicate them, especially for things that have been done repeatedly. Take Gwen Stacey’s tragic death in Spider-Man. People have been going over the physics behind that tragedy since it first appeared in the comics in 1973. They know all the facts — how much Gwen weighed, how fast she was moving, and how much force it takes to snap a human neck. With that information, they’ve looked into the physics of that accident over and over again. You don’t need to over-complicate things, especially things that have been done to death – no pun intended.

Keep It Fun

The whole point of adding pop culture references to your lesson plans is to make it fun. Don’t screw that up by thinking about it too much. Make sure you’re keeping it fun and honoring all your student’s favorite characters in the meantime. National STEAM day falls on November 8th, 2019, and incorporating pop culture into your lessons is the perfect way to celebrate. STEAM fields are going to continue to grow by up to 14% between 2010 and 2020 — nearly twice the rest of the job market.

It’s up to teachers and parents to get students interested in STEM and STEAM fields. What better way to do that than by involving their favorite characters and stories? Everyone loves a superhero. They can use the skills that they’ve learned in class to make these miraculous things real. We might not turn them into Iron Man or Spider-Man, but we can foster a life-long love of learning in STEM fields that will serve them well into their adult life.

Feature image source: Giphy

How to Teach STEM with Pop Culture References
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Article by: Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance science writer and science enthusiast. Her favorite subjects include astronomy and the environment. Megan is also a regular contributor to The Naked Scientists, Thomas Insights, and Real Clear Science. When she isn't writing, Megan loves watching movies, hiking, and stargazing.