07-07 UC Davis Captain America shield

[Image above] The research group of UC Davis associate professor Ricardo Castro built a Captain America-sized fire-deflecting shield to demonstrate the power of materials engineering. Credit: Engineering Superheroes, YouTube

Ever since Marvel Studios released the first Iron Man movie in 2008, the superhero genre has become a dominant form of popular cinema worldwide.

The reason for this popularity is multifaceted, including relentless and canny marketing strategies, fan loyalty, and the desire for escapism, among other factors. Yet while we often focus on the fantastical nature of these films as a big draw, some of the most popular superheroes are the ones whose powers are the most scientifically plausible.

This realism is no accident—famed comic book writer Stan Lee said in interviews that he tried to feature science heavily in his comics, and Marvel Studious regularly consulted University of Southern California physicist Clifford V. Johnson for its films.

For science educators, the realism and popularity of superheroes presents a great opportunity to teach science through a fun and engaging lens. We’ve highlighted some of these “super” science lessons on CTT before, and today we’re showcasing how one ACerS Fellow uses superheroes to inspire learning in both the classroom and laboratory.

Ricardo Castro and the science of superheroes

Ricardo Castro is a materials science and engineering professor at the University of California, Davis. He believes strongly that showing is an integral part of the learning process for students. Because superhero movies in particular show a “unique and fantastic world through CGI,” it offers a great opportunity to ask, “If this were true, what would be the engineering concept behind it?” he explains in a UC Davis press release.

In 2015, Castro piloted an undergraduate engineering course called “Materials Marvels: The Science of Superheroes,” which showed how superheroes are both products and resources of ideas for new materials and technologies. The class was a success and is now an official part of the regular course catalogue.

Last year, Castro began developing a new initiative called Engineering Superheroes, a short series of videos and activities that use superheroes to introduce a younger audience to STEM. The inspiration for this initiative came from his two sons, ages 6 and 8, and the additional challenges faced by teachers as they switched to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This May, the first Engineering Superheroes episode published, focusing on the science behind Captain America’s shield. The episodes are funded by the National Science Foundation Division of Materials Research Ceramics 2015650 as well as through UC Davis crowdfunding.

Credit: Engineering Superheroes, YouTube

In addition to designing superhero-inspired lesson plans for different age groups, Castro also uses superheroes as inspiration during research.

Castro’s research group focuses on understanding nanoscale effects in ceramic materials and composites and how to optimally process these materials to control their nanoscale behavior. A few years ago, when working on a project that required a device that could absorb an impact and dissipate the energy, they looked to Captain America’s shield, which is shown to stop bullets and missiles without transferring that energy to Captain America himself.

To build the real-life shield, the team used a composite made of piezoelectric crystals, epoxy resin, and carbon nanotubes. “The crystals absorb the impact and convert it to electricity, which is dissipated into a matrix of carbon nanotubes that make the material tougher instead of transferring energy to the user,” a UC Davis press release explains.

Though the shield did demonstrate “significant improvement of toughness from this electricity,” Castro says the shield was only the size of a coin, thus limiting its application.

Though no longer working on this project, Castro says the shield inspired other research pursuits, such as the search for the toughest transparent material on earth, now funded by the Army Research Office. It also inspired his group to build a Captain America-sized fire-deflecting shield to demonstrate the power of materials engineering, which you can see in the video below.

Credit: Engineering Superheroes, YouTube