by Gabriel Santos1
In the world of education, we often hear complaints that people know more about celebrities and fictional characters than about science. Taking a moment to scroll through Twitter or Instagram, it can be easy to agree with such complaints. It can be a constant struggle for educators to find a way to make abstract concepts from science more interesting than ideas from fiction, like the Force or giant robots. But what if there were a way to use people’s fascination with pop culture as a tool for education? What if there were a way to use pop culture to make science relatable and accessible? What if there were a way to use pop culture to make scientists and educators more approachable? That is where the Cosplay for Science Initiative comes in.
The Cosplay for Science Initiative is a science-communication project that uses cosplay, the practice of dressing up as a character, to help break down barriers between audiences and scientists, and make science education more accessible. For example, dressing up as Dr. Ellie Sattler from Jurassic Park to talk about the science behind the franchise’s fictionalized dinosaurs. The Initiative was founded in August of 2017 by four nerdy friends who also happen to be paleontologists: me, Gabriel Santos of the Raymond M. Alf Musuem of Paleontology, Brittney Stoneburg of the Western Science Center, Michelle Barboza-Ramirez of the Femmes of STEM podcast and UF alumna, and Isaac Magallanes, a graduate student at the University of Florida. Each of us have research interests in science communication and education and wanted to develop ways to make science education more accessible.
Separately, we had all used pop culture in the past as a teaching tool; I had cosplayed as Professor Oak for a Pokémon Paleontology event at the Raymond M. Alf Museum, Brittney and her museum had attended pop-culture events to talk about fossils, and Michelle and Isaac had talked about science facts behind pop culture in their Instagram accounts. It wasn’t until Brittney and I attended Nerdbot-Con together to talk about the science of Jurassic Park cosplaying as Jurassic Park characters that the Cosplay for Science Initiative was born (Fig. 1). After seeing how easily interested attendees were in our fossil booth and how easily the attendees engaged with the paleontologists at the booth, Brittney and I realized how great of a tool cosplay could be for making science relatable and scientists approachable. Since then, the Initiative has attended four conventions, multiple events at other institutions, developed a steady following online, and has even appeared in a couple pop culture articles (here and here, and see below) to talk about science education and pop-culture.
The Initiative as it is now has added three official members: Kellen Kartub, a chemistry PhD candidate at UC Irvine (Fig. 2), Dr. Matt Hudgens-Haney, a neuroscientist, and Ginny Liz, a PhD candidate in Physics and Education. We are beginning to look at establishing local chapters in other parts of the world. As nerds, scientists and educators, our goal is to reach out to communities to foster science appreciation through the use of nerd and pop culture. The initiative strives to make science a part of audiences’ everyday lives and interests, to encourage approachability and trust in scientists as educators, and to create a community that acknowledges the importance of science and appreciates it as we do, all while having fun with it.
Most recently, the initiative attended Los Angeles Comic Con by bringing a pop-up natural history museum to the convention exhibition floor (Figs. 3–6). Now, fossils and natural history specimens must seem like an odd thing to take to a comic-book convention surrounded by thousands of apparently more interesting pieces of pop culture. The fossils and specimens would seem as if they could hardly compete with the rows of superhero statues, anime art and cartoon collectibles for the attention of the amassing fans. But by adding a fun pop-culture twist to the pop-up museum, say by calling it the Natural History Museum of Pokémon and cosplaying as Pokémon Professors, we can make the odd fossils and scary scientists something familiar and attractive to the comic-con audience. With this, the initiative allows audiences the opportunity to discover how science inspires science fiction: in this case, how real fossils and specimens inspired the world of Pokémon. The familiarity and popularity of Pokémon hook the audience and grab their interest; it then becomes easier to introduce scientific concepts, such as deep time and extinction.
Here are a few close-up examples (Figs. 7, 9, 11, 12), and some fossil counterparts (Figs. 8, 10, 13), in which the Cosplay for Science Initiative linked Pokémon with palaeontology, natural history and science education (artwork by Valeria Pellicer):
In the panels shown above, the Cosplay for Science Initiative showed audiences how a fictional world they love is inspired by the world in which we live — and that sometimes, the real world is just as interesting as fantasy worlds. Through this, the initiative hopes that audiences will develop an appreciation for the science hidden in their everyday lives, and a passion to learn more about the things they love.
RAM specimens housed at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont, CA.
WSC specimens housed at the Western Science Center in Hemet, CA.
Suggestions for further reading:
Mohns, Mariel. “Cosplay for Science: Meet the Team.” The Sartorial Geek Oct. 2018: 38-44. Print.
https://anchor.fm/scicommjc (Episode 2)
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