Harry Potter x Science: Pop Culture as a Strategy for Science Engagement

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September 30th, 2019

Dr. Rebecca Y. Lai is an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and the Education and Outreach Director of University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s (UNL’s) Materials Science and Engineering Research Center. This blog was co-written with Kiyomi Deards, an associate professor and science librarian at UNL. She also serves as a visiting program officer for diversity and leadership at the Association of Research Libraries. Together, they lead the SciPop outreach program.

At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), I am known as the “Harry Potter professor.” Since 2010, I’ve used the Harry Potter books to celebrate and teach science in undergraduate chemistry courses, at over 20 local informal science education events with over 3,000 attendees, and at four national events, including MISTI-Con, a Harry Potter fan convention. For those of you who haven’t read the books, the Harry Potter series includes potions (chemistry), invisibility cloaks (optics), herbology (plant science), shapeshifting (programmable matter), and magical animals (science of camouflage, pyrokinetics, venom, etc.).

In July 2010, I received a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER award, Ligand-induced Folding in Peptides for Biosensing Applications (0955439), which supports new researchers to think more broadly about integrating research and educating a larger audience through an outreach event or program. I used the award to combine my love of Harry Potter’s magical world with my love of science, teaching, and outreach by creating an honors undergraduate chemistry course, called A Muggle’s Guide to Harry Potter’s Chemistry, and an afterschool program, developed to meet the NSF Broader Impacts requirements of the award.

Creating a magical afterschool program

The Harry Potter x Science After School Program started when an attendee at my Sunday with a Scientist event at UNL asked me to do something similar at a local elementary school. In response, I developed a seven-week program for Kloefkorn Elementary School in Lincoln, billed as “7 Years of Hogwarts in 7 Weeks,” which continued for four years (2014-2017).

Every week, I gave a short 10-minute lecture, followed by hands-on activities in which children explored aspects of potions, herbology, care of magical creatures, the alchemy behind the sorcerer’s stone, and invisible ink like in Tom Riddle’s diary (a diary in which words would disappear as soon as they were written). The lectures featured lots of pop-up questions, which the students could answer to gain points for their “House.”

The impact of the afterschool program

Eleven students participated in the initial 2014 program and filled out a short six-question survey at the end. The survey revealed the following:

  • Learning: All of the students reported that they had learned a lot about science. Ninety percent of the students said they would tell their friends about it and felt they had learned a lot about the Harry Potter books.
  • Career aspirations: Six out of the 11 participants reported that they wanted to be a scientist or engineer in the future. Two others wanted to be veterinarians, another career in the life sciences.
  • Popular content and activities: The three most popular lectures and activities related to Book 1 (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), featuring the science behind gold and stained glass; Book 3 (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), featuring hippogriffs, real hybrid animals, chimeras, genetics, DNA structures, and functions; and Book 4 (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), in which the students created glow sticks using ChemLight and created a laser show with prisms and mirrors.

Evolution and expansion into SciPop

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Image courtesy of Erin Colonna, UNL Libraries

Building on the Harry Potter x Science afterschool program, my colleagues and I developed SciPop, an informal science education and outreach program. Kiyomi, Raychelle Burks (then a post-doctoral student at Doane University, and now a professor at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas), and I believe that everyone can become interested in science when we tap into the popular culture topics they already like, in games, books, movies, TV shows, or hobbies.

SciPop Talks feature interactive presentations, while SciPop Interactive events focus on hands-on activities. In the past, we have featured topics like Spiderman Fact and Fiction, Bumble Bee Transformer and Transformer of Worlds, and Captain Planet’s Ice Ball. Depending on the topic, weather (ice and snowstorms keep people away, for example), other events happening on campus, and location, audiences have ranged from 12 to 70 attendees at UNL Libraries, or 30 to 800 for special events. The UNL Libraries hosts the regular series of SciPop Talks with one talk in the fall semester and two to six talks in the spring semester, depending on the year.

Every audience is different when you are working at the intersection of science and pop culture. People enjoy different aspects of the SciPop events; some are loyal fans of a specific pop culture topic or genre, while other individuals are curious about science and will attend all presentations. Raychelle has noted that fans of pop genres have expertise that science communicators can leverage and acknowledge as “assets” while sharing their own disciplinary knowledge, for more equitable, mutual learning interactions.

What’s next?

Over time, SciPop has evolved to include participation by computer scientists, mathematicians, sociologists, physicists, food science and nutrition experts, and engineers from UNL, Doane University, and local businesses. SciPop is now also offered at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, thanks to Raychelle’s passion for pop culture-based outreach.

We plan to continue working with faculty at UNL and Doane University, the UNL Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC), the Nebraska Local Section of the American Chemical Society, our museum partners (SAC Aerospace Museum in Ashland, Lincoln Children’s Museum, and the University of Nebraska State Museum), Lincoln Public Schools, and the State Department of Education in Nebraska to provide interactive talks and informal science outreach events centered around the intersection of science and pop culture. Lincoln Public Schools, our local school district, has recently begun offering continuing education credit to teachers who attend SciPop talks.

There’s plenty more to explore regarding the chemistry of Harry Potter. I plan to package the Harry Potter x Science After School Program into kits to distribute to teachers. In addition, I will continue developing new interactive lectures and activities to connect children of all ages to the magic of chemistry and the world of Harry Potter. I will also collaborate with other science communicators and use social media platforms to broaden the impact of my Harry Potter x Science Education and Outreach Program.

If you’re interested in the PowerPoint lectures and activities for the afterschool program, email me at rlai2@unl.edu. If you’re interested in hosting your own SciPop Talk, check out our event hosting guide and survey, and watch select recordings of SciPop talks on our YouTube playlist. Contact Kiyomi at kdeards2@unl.edu with additional questions. Finally, here’s Raychelle’s SciPop Talk on the chemistry in George R. R. Martin’s fantasy book series.

To explore other, creative strategies for engaging diverse audiences with chemistry CAISE suggests looking at the National Academies Press report Effective Chemistry Communication in Informal Environments and the National Informal STEM Education Network’s ChemAttitudes resources.