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Teaching Science Through Cosplay

When tasked with planning an activity about how fossils influence pop culture at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology, AAAS Member Gabriel-Philip Santos had an idea to make his talk stand out. He decided to dress up as Professor Oak from the Pokémon franchise to explain that many Pokémon were inspired by fossils. Santos thought the concept was fun, but he didn’t expect the huge reaction he received.

“Because [Professor Oak] is a character, I found that people were able to talk to me much easier because they didn’t realize I was a paleontologist to begin with,” Santos explained. “They just thought I was some guy dressed up as Professor Oak talking about Pokémon, and then I was introducing scientific concepts into that.”

To many, the world of science seems daunting, and scientists appear unapproachable. Cosplayers are working to change that image.

Cosplay – the combination of “costume” and “play” – means dressing up as a character from a movie, TV show, video game or comic to pay homage to an entertainment franchise. Cosplay for Science is a science communication initiative using cosplay as a platform to teach science within a pop culture setting.

Santos is a co-founder of Cosplay for Science, a paleontologist and the Collections Manager and Outreach Coordinator for the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology. He also has attended anime, sci-fi and comic conventions – commonly referred to as “cons” – since his high school days, occasionally cosplaying at them.

Isaac Magallanes, Michelle Barboza, Brittney Stoneburg, Gabriel-Philip Santos
Isaac Magallanes, Michelle Barboza,
Brittney Stoneburg, Gabriel-Philip Santos.
Credit: Cosplay for Science Initiative.

He enjoyed cosplaying to teach science at his own museum, but he didn’t consider formalizing it until his friend and Cosplay for Science co-founder Brittney Stoneburg asked him to attend the 2017 Nerdbot-Con to help set up a pop-up museum for the Western Science Center.

Since they both had cosplayed before, and since Santos had seen success during his own Pokémon-themed event, he threw out an idea to Stoneburg as they gathered dinosaur fossils to take to the con: “Let’s go crazy on this; let’s dress up as Jurassic Park characters.”

Attendees absolutely loved it.

“They were approaching us to talk to us, and once we let them know we were actual paleontologists, they were so excited to meet with us,” Santos remarked. “We realized that by cosplaying and…trying to present science through pop culture narratives that are already popular and already relatable…we can get our audiences…to engage with sciences directly without realizing it.”

From there, they recruited two of Santos’ paleontology colleagues from California State University, Fullerton, Michelle Barboza-Ramirez and Isaac Magallanes, and Cosplay for Science was officially formed. The education and communication initiative now has attended about 15 cons and community events in California, and they have grown their membership to include scientists in other disciplines throughout the United States. While Santos admits Cosplay for Science isn’t the first group of scientists to share science at cons, it is one of the first to build a methodology for teaching science through cosplay.

Besides hosting pop-up museums and cosplaying, the group conducts research about how pop culture affects perception of scientists and science in general, as well as how much science one can learn through pop culture narratives. In July, Cosplay for Science received an E-an Zen Fund for Geoscience Outreach Grant to develop a pop-up museum that will travel and be available online, and to create kindergarten through 12th grade lesson plans for teachers to present science through a pop culture lens.

Making science and scientists relatable is especially important to Santos because when he first started in paleontology, he didn’t feel represented in the field. As a first-generation Filipino scientist, he struggled to find a sense of belonging. “There was no Filipino person I could find who had done vertebrate paleontology previously,” Santos admitted. He has since found a family within the scientific community, but he also is working to diversify it.

While members of the Cosplay for Science team were attending the 2018 Los Angeles Comic Con, Santos noticed a little boy fascinated by the fossil display and overheard his mom speaking Tagalog, one of the most common languages spoken in the Philippines. Santos started speaking to the boy in Tagalog to show he was also Filipino, and upon realizing this connection, the little boy exclaimed, “‘I want to be a paleontologist too, like you!’” At that moment, Santos realized, “maybe we’re doing more than just talking about science.”

Cosplay is also a portion of AAAS Member Brittany Wickham’s science education and outreach initiatives. As a Science Interpreter at the Franklin Institute, she works to increase museum visitors’ science capital, a term that not only encompasses science literacy and participation, but also talking to scientists, developing critical, scientific thinking skills and distinguishing scientific facts from opinion.

Brittany Wickham and Paul Taylor.
Brittany Wickham and Paul Taylor
(Franklin Institute Creative Coach).
Credit: Al Leszczynski.

To Wickham, cosplay means “getting into costume to help convey a certain idea, to help guests fully be submerged in the experience we’re creating for them.” She believes it works best alongside other media to help set the stage for an immersive learning environment.

“Using cosplay is a way to make people smile before you’re even talking to them… they’re already disarmed, and it’s just an easy way to ease into making a connection using science as the content, but the friendship and connection is the bridge.”

In the Franklin Institute’s Science After Hours, evening events for adults only, Wickham and other staff members cosplay to present a fun, relaxed learning environment. Often, the museum guests even arrive in cosplay themselves and are then inclined to initiate conversation with one another. This has especially held true at Game of Thrones- and Harry Potter-themed nights the museum has hosted. By cosplaying, Wickham and other hosts can get attendees to play along and truly be a part of the events.

“Groups of strangers who have never talked—they come up and now, all of a sudden, they are living out the prisoner’s dilemma in a 1920s speakeasy, and they are being interrogated by the police,” the prisoner’s dilemma being a puzzle used in social sciences that “illustrates a conflict between individual and group rationality.” Afterwards, Wickham can take a step back and ask her audience members what just happened and how they felt about the experience.

“I really enjoy being in the moment, but I think the richest dialogue comes from that conversation that we have after,” Wickham shared. 

By cosplaying and creating this atmosphere, Wickham tries to make her programs highly emotional so that guests hold onto these memories. “My observation is that the guests that really do it and play along are the ones learning the most, and they’re walking away with the best understanding. The people that have their arms crossed and are just watching and won’t play along…yeah, they’re getting the concept, but they don’t have that emotional memory of being a part of it.”

Overall, Wickham wishes to encourage museum guests and others she engages with to continuously stimulate themselves in education, especially in the sciences, because “we don’t finish learning when we’re done with school.”

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