Black Pantherx

In the wake of another culturally-situated Hollywood blockbuster, Crazy Rich Asians, we are revisiting our Black Panther collection from our digital fabrication lessons on the website.  This special collection was developed to teach digital fabrication through the lens of culture and identity.  So, with another mega film focused on the stories of the ‘other’, countless responses from everyday people and celebrities alike have harkened our attention to the meaning and value that these diverse stories bring.

You never know how much you miss being represented on screen until you actually see what it’s like to be represented. And represented by all different types of characters with all different types of personalities, just like any other great movie. – Chrissy Teigen

One of my favorites was a tweet from Chrissy Teigen, Asian American model, actress, and writer who shared, “You never know how much you miss being represented…until you see what it’s like to be represented.”  Her words ring true, not only in entertainment but also education.  Culturally responsive pedagogy shows that children are empowered, feel valued and are ready to learn when content is relatable even if that connection is made by teaching lessons through pop culture, movies, and music.

In the Black Panther collection we tapped into this principle and developed a number of lessons that built upon the direct ties to STEM ( science, technology, engineering and math) – as well as the elements of African culture – to craft content relatable to over 7.5M  school-age children in the United States that experience very little academic material related to their own history and culture.

As digital fabrication grows in its importance in the 3rd digital revolution and our emerging global economy, it’s essential that all children see it as a relatable field of study for their participation in future society.  It’s also essential that exposure to digital fabrication and culturally-situated learning occurs in and out of school.

In partnership with Thinkbox, a digital fabrication makerspace at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), the Fab Foundation hosted a group of elementary and middle school students for a day in their makerspace to explore the themes of identity and lessons from Black Panther through digital fabrication. In a hands-on activity, 15 students from Cleveland area schools worked with CWRU staff and students, along with Fab Foundation staff to create a pendant inspired by King T’Chala’s necklace. During the creation of their pendant, students not only learned about design software, metal making, and 3D printing; they also explored the topic of identity.  They discussed individual identity from physical characteristics, in relation to personal preferences to group and community identity.  These identities are either embraced by or placed upon groups of people. They can be based on factors like race and culture.  To learn more, see the lesson from our website here:

In addition to the Black Panther special collection, there are other culturally situated lessons on the scopes website under World Culture, including a lesson focused on Asian lanterns here:

As we celebrate films that speak to the essential story of belonging and acknowledgment – like Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther – we can take it a step further through inclusive practices.  Identity does matter. This was magnified for me in a recent teacher professional development when we discussed inspiration, and one of the teachers shared that he was inspired by the movie Crazy Rich Asians and how important that was to him.  To see a wide range of Asian people and customs and practices on the big screen.  That was highlighted at the end of our day at Thinkbox in Cleveland too. In fact, one of the students shared that seeing Black Panther made him proud.  He also knew he could work in STEM because he had seen it in a movie of people that looked like him, and he could do it as he did with us on that Saturday in May.

If SCOPES-DF is re-imagining education through equity, collaboration, and deeper learning, it’s essential that we create teachable moments from the world around us and offer the opportunity for all people to be celebrated.  Teaching our children how to celebrate themselves and others all while using technology as a tool of extension for ideas and progress.


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The SCOPES-DF team worked with educators from our Leadership Cohort, the Fab Foundation’s GE/BCL team, and a developing community of practice to create lessons for our Special Collection that are aligned with the rich design and cultural attributes of Marvel Studio’s “Black Panther” film. The Black Panther Collection represents a timely opportunity to broaden pathways to STEM education by providing inclusive learning experiences at the intersection of cultural expression and technology.

Contributors: Daniel Smithwick and Melvin Laprade (SCOPES-DF), Sarah Wallace (MC2 STEM), Kim Stanley (STEM Chattanooga), Sonya Pryor-Jones (Fab Foundation)

Left, a Zulu woman in the traditional headdress of a married woman; center, a conceptual costume sketch by Ms. Carter (design) and Ryan Meinerding and his team (concept artists); and right, the 3D printed headdress as worn by Angela Bassett in the movie. Credit Getty Images; Marvel; Marvel/Disney

This intersection of cultural expression and technology heightened by mass media, provides a unique opportunity for personalized learning that is transdisciplinary and rooted in acknowledgement and celebration leading to confidence, self-efficacy, and collective advocacy.

This collection offers a specific call and invitation to youth of diverse backgrounds to digital fabrication, by acknowledging and celebrating the cultural attributes of the African diaspora, while leveraging the expertise of our community, which is concerned with developing curriculum that addresses learning standards while illuminating STEM learning as concretely as possible through digital fabrication tools and capabilities.

The Collection

Our goal is to have educators tap this collection, which includes Dora Milaje Tabi Boot, Wakandan Bling, and Celebrating Adinkra through Digital Fab. These lessons have been Fab tested to ensure that educators have access to quality content.

Inspirational women designers from Black Panther – Left: Hannah Beachler, set designer; Center: Ruth Carter, costume designer; Right: Douriean Fletcher, jewelry designer

Wakanda is a fictional African nation that is made up of many tribes, each with its own cultural style and heritage. The Dora Milaje Tabi Boot and Wakandan Bling lessons cover the steps taken to simulate cultural designs and digitally fabricated items worn by characters/actors in the film. These lessons are inspired by Ruth Carter’s approach to costume design for “Black Panther”, which includes combining symbols and patterns from several African cultures. This includes the use of Adinkra, visual symbols that are used extensively in fabrics and pottery. Traditional Adinkra are made using woodcut sign writing, so we used a laser cutter and 3D printer to create symbols/objects and the designs were computer-generated.

Dora Milaje Tabi Boot with 3D printed anklet and embedded electronics (LEDs).

Celebrating Adinkra through Digital Fab shows students how to create custom Adinkra symbols using low-tech art supplies and digital fabrication machines including a 3D printer and vinyl cutter. Students will design and model their symbols using the 3D modeling program, Tinkercad as well as, with help from their teacher, create their own 2D symbol to be made into a sticker.

Geometric Potential of the Adinkra Symbols

One of the things that most inspired us when encountering the Adinkra symbols was their geometric potential. The Dora Milje Tabi Boot and Wakandan Bling lessons include the exploration of free, online computer-based tools that use “heritage algorithms” to help students learn STEM principles as they simulate the cultural artifacts and develop their own 2D creations. This includes the use of an Adinkra CSDT (culturally situated design tool) that allows students to learn a simple programming language to simulate Adinkra shapes.

The “Dwennimmen” symbol simulation using the Adinkra CSDT.

Another starting point is to think about how to take these two-dimensional shapes into three dimensions. From a digital fabricator’s point of view, these symbols contain a rich and varied geometry – a collection of symmetries, solids and voids (holes), and patterns – that could be further manipulated and transformed into artistic and functional material objects.

Adinkra symbol as 2D vector drawing and as 3D printed solids

A good lesson to learn when working with digital fabrication tools and processes is identifying the materials you are working with and learning about the qualities it gives you to play with. From 2D outlines of the symbols one can laser cut the shapes and get the third dimension from the thickness of the materials, which is what we did with the Wakanda Bling earrings. We used 2D drawings to cut out shapes from ¼” thick acrylic, giving us a depth full of colored light and shadow.

Translucent materials provide highlights, color variation and depth to play with.

With 3D printing one can further explore three dimensional geometric transformations of the Adinkra symbols. Take for example one of the symbols for Democracy, below. As a 2D figure this Democracy symbol can be described as diagonally aligned intersecting squares. However, what if these squares were cubes instead and what if the cubes were distributed at different heights?

Democracy symbol as a filled 2D shape and as a set of overlapping squares

Four variations of 3D Democracy symbols that cast the same shadows from above.

Based on the 2D Adinkra symbol (for “Wakandan Bling”), we created a set of solid cubes in TinkerCAD, a free browser-based 3D modeling program. Then, we played with the alignment and distribution of the cubes by dragging them around in space and joining them together to form new solids. We discovered that we could create a set of these symbols, each one a different configuration of cubes in 3D space, but when viewed strictly from the top, they were all the same. Students can find out how many such variations can be made. Teachers and students can follow the lessons to learn how to use these tools/methods to make their projects.

Photo courtesy of Aidan Mullaney.

With this special collection, the SCOPES-DF team took a culturally situated approach to computation and digital fabrication, which has great promise in future projects that seek to foster engagement and motivation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) for all students and especially students from groups that underrepresented in STEM fields.

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