Using superheroes to spark girls' interest in science

An illustration from E. Paul Zehr's new book, "Project Superhero" (illustration by Kris Pearn)
An illustration from E. Paul Zehr's new book, "Project Superhero" (illustration by Kris Pearn)

Our guest blogger this week is 2003 MSFHR Scholar E. Paul Zehr. As a professor of neuroscience at the University of Victoria, Zehr uses topics related to pop culture (such as Batman and Iron Man) to engage the public and communicate complex scientific concepts about the human body.

More blog posts: Spark >> A BC Health Research Blog


As someone who is passionate about translating scientific knowledge for a wider audience, I use superheroes as tools to explain scientific concepts.

In my pop-sci writing, mainly for Scientific American and Psychology Today magazines, and in my earlier books Becoming Batman and Inventing Iron Man, I was trying to reach a general public audience anywhere from 18 to 80+ years of age (see my earlier Spark blog post).  

Since publishing Becoming Batman in 2008, I’ve been invited to speak in schools across Canada. I’ve spoken with thousands of kids covering the entire K-12 range, but mostly clustered around middle school grades 6 to 8. During those talks, I paid very careful attention to the kinds of questions I was asked and who was asking them.

It turns out that a lot of the questions were coming from girls. Many wanted to know if I’d ever write something specifically for “them”. Them, in this context, meant girls aged 10-15, a group who often begin to drift away from science and mathematics. In response, I wrote my latest book called Project Superhero.

Published in fall 2014, Project Superhero is a “hybrid” fiction/non-fiction book written in diary style and specifically aimed at tween girls. Facts about human physiology, exercise training, and nutrition are combined with the fictional story of my protagonist Jessie and her friends during her grade 8 year.

In Project Superhero, Jessie is working on a year-long school assignment where each student chooses a superhero to explore. She chooses Batgirl and finds many of the compelling issues found in Batman. That is, the concept of hard work and extremely dedicated training taking human ability to the maximum — regardless of gender. She goes beyond just the theoretical understanding of Batgirl’s physical capacity and begins to learn about martial arts and good nutrition. She realizes she’s not really going to become an actual superhero, but discovers that her potential greatly exceeds any limitations she ever imagined constraining her.

Jessie learns about the wondrous science of the human body but in a subtle way. More importantly, though, what began as a book trying to frame science in more engaging way morphed into a book with lots of themes about female empowerment. Jessie finds that many of the limitations society places on us are false limits that can — by diligent effort — be overcome.

The roadmap for a healthy future needs explicit efforts aimed at encouraging young girls to maintain and explore fully their early interests in science. This group in particular needs the reinforced message that, as 13-year-old Jessie concludes in Project Superhero, “there really is a superhero in me.”