Wakanda Forever in STEM & STEAM Education

My 2018 article for SyFy (no longer on the site).

In 2018 I was commission by SyFy Channel to write something about Marvel’s “Black Panther” that was still in movie theaters. I decided to write about Shuri, a teenage Black girl character who was showing real life youth from underrepresented groups what thriving in a maker culture looked like, though culturally relevant and culturally situated lenses. Unfortunately, I don’t think the article is up anymore but I grabbed a screenshot (above). I contrasted Shuri’s work with the reality presented in reports such as the National Science Foundation’s Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering.

Science & engineering occupations in 2019. Courtesy National Science Foundation (NSF).

Underrepresented groups — Hispanics or Latinos, Blacks or African Americans, and American Indians or Alaska Natives — had a lower share of employed workers in S&E occupations than did Whites, Asians, and other racial groups. For women the numbers are even lower. So imagine being a Black or brown girl seeing Shuri in her lab, tinkering, inventing, and prototyping. Unfortunately, since “Black Panther” left theaters in 2015/2016, the numbers did not increase by much in STEM fields.

Dominique Thorne as Riri Williams / Ironheart in “Wakanda Forever”. Courtesy Marvel and Disney.

In “Wakanda Forever” that just opened in theaters this weekend, we encounter Riri Williams, a young Black MIT student who is running circles around her peers and professors. Riri, played by Trinidadian-American actress Dominique Thorne, has her own maker space/garage and she tinkers just like Shuri. In the comics, Riri designs a suit of armor similar to the Iron Man armor using material from campus. In the film, we see her wear a prototype, then iterate on her design in the Wakandan lab.

Me at the Autodesk Tech Center in Boston in 2019.

Pre-pandemic I spent a few months at the Autodesk Tech Center in Boston where I learned how to weld, cut stainless steel with a waterjet, laser etch metal, use microelectronics to make a device, and 3D print large objects. While there I met a young Black high school student named Serena who excitedly told me that she was interested in what she saw at Autodesk but she also wanted to know how I came to be there (as a Black woman).

Kipp Academy student Serena P. shows me her design at Autodesk Boston.

Before meeting Serena at Autodesk I gave a talk to a room full of Black and brown teens at Northeastern University. I talked about Suri and her inventions. I recall asking them to raise their hands if they knew a Shuri at their schools or in their communities and not one hand went up. I also showed them a prototype electronic shoe we (Fab Foundation) designed based on the one worn by the Dora Milaje in “Black Panther.” When I invited them to come forward to see it I was mobbed by the overly-excited youth. You can read more about how we made it here: https://www.scopesdf.org/scopesdf_lesson/dora-milaje-tabi-boot.

Our electronic Dora Milaje-inspired Tabi boot in 2019.

Watching both Shuri and Riri do their thing in “Wakanda Forever” brought tears to my eyes because I knew that there were youth of color and girls watching all over the world who would not have the chance to thrive in their own spaces: collaborating with artificial intelligence to solve problems, 3D printing plants that are becoming extinct (due to climate change), and more. I imagine that they could have these opportunities if their school administrators and teachers gave them the space, and their communities had more labs or maker spaces. Also, that there were jobs for them to thrive in when they graduated.

“Wakanda Forever” gives us hope that these things can happen.

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Nettrice Gaskins

Nettrice is a digital artist, academic, cultural critic and advocate of STEAM education.