Superpowered Interdisciplinary Projects: Using the Science in Saturday Morning Cartoons

How to leverage cultural background knowledge to increase student investment.

By Elijah Ammen


Two kids watching television

Interdisciplinary teaching is more than a buzzword—it’s the optimal learning environment. This is why so many schools are focusing on an emphasis of teaching in-between disciplines, especially through project-based learning. If high schoolers don’t see the cross-curricular implications of what they are learning, they will not be academically prepared for a college or a job market that requires innovation and problem-solving.

It might seem ironic that in order to promote college and career readiness, I am advocating referencing Saturday morning cartoons. I freely acknowledge that television is a lethargic exercise for the brain, and even the programming designed to educate is often counterproductive. Much to the dismay of parents, the Wiggles are not going to make your children smarter, and Baby Einstein may make your kids less intelligent. 

Saturday Morning Cartoons

But there is a case to be made for the homogenous cultural experience of Saturday morning cartoons. All education is scaffolded up from some level of background knowledge, and with younger grades, there is often precious little academic background knowledge. Using cultural references for children to start from is not pandering, it is finding the common denominator and building their interest with increasingly higher-level thinking.

Project-based learning requires that teachers think outside of the box (see this article for a full explanation of project-based learning). A crucial part of any project is the launch event, where the teacher presents the essential question in a way that engages learners and promotes student buy-in. Without student investment, their projects will be a lackluster execution of the minimum-required project guidelines. This is why launch events are high in interest, but low in rigor. The rigor builds once their interest is piqued, because then they drive the learning, not the teacher.

Personal Example

My science theme was energy. My reading standards were characterization and the elements of a story. My passion is superheroes.

I began class with a slideshow of images from entertainment from their childhood: Power Rangers, Naruto, Harry Potter, Avatar, Bionicle, Captain Planet, and the Fantastic Four, among others. The room was already buzzing with energy as kids remembered dressing up for a character for Halloween, or which Power Ranger they most wanted to be.

Then I introduced the class to the four elements: fire, wind, earth, and water, the ancient concepts of energy. I went back through the images from pop culture and asked them to identify how each story used those ideas, whether through colors, symbols, or superpowers.

Holding Student Interest

Once a learner is invested, the rest is easy. Because my launch event was high in student interest, it was easy to get the them to commit to the entire project. Discussions about ancient concepts of energy led into modern concepts of energy. I gradually incorporated gallery walks of modern energy and superheroes, allowing pupils to discuss electromagnetism in X-Men, Gambit’s use of potential and kinetic energy, and hydropower in The Incredibles.

The class looked at the symbolism of energy and how that indirectly characterized the heroes who used energy. They could see how conflicting forces of energy are used to show conflict between a protagonist and an antagonist, and how that conflict built to a climax and resolution. They could then create their own stories using their own energy, symbols, and heroes. The road up Bloom’s Taxonomy can be sneaky, but it always has to be intentional.

Other Interdisciplinary Lessons:

Superhero Genetics

A fun way for high schoolers to practice their knowledge of phenotypes, genotypes, and Punnett squares. They practice using different traits in combinations of dominant and recessive genes and create a superhero from those characteristics. This would bring a little levity and variety into a unit that is entirely too dominated by Mendel’s peas.

Super Vocabulary

Better adapted for elementary or middle school ages, it uses superhero biographies to teach vocabulary. It also comes with some pupil-friendly worksheets with visuals of superheroes. The vocabulary could be made more rigorous for higher-level words or science terms.

Superheroes as Philanthropists

Learners research and present on how superheroes help their communities. It focuses on superheroes as philanthropists. This would be a good launch event for a discussion of real-life philanthropy, using comparison and contrast.

Michael Jackson Interdisciplinary Lessons

Superheroes are not for everyone. I happen to have a passion for that subject, which allows me to share that with my classes. This article gives a list of lessons that link Michael Jackson to subjects from science to history. It also suggests using a free-writing exercise as an opening event.  Each lesson is linked to a classic Michael Jackson song, from “We Are the World” to “Beat It.”