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Kickstarter Alert: Computer science through superheroes with Naseed Gifted and ‘P.B. Soldier’

Educational and kick-ass at the same time.

Getting younger kids interested in science and technology is a challenge for educators around the country. Naseed Gifted, a high school principal in Newark, New Jersey, is trying his own spin on making STEM subjects more engaging to students – a comic book called P.B. Soldier, now seeking funding on Kickstarter, which follows the exploits of computer hacker Nat Cummings.

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I got a chance to talk to Gifted about his intentions for the comic, as well as his experiences as an engineer-turned-educator.

AIPT: When did you start reading comics? What’s your history with the medium?

Naseed Gifted: I started reading comics in middle school. I was introduced to two major comic books, which were [Amazing] Spider-Man, drawn by Todd McFarlane, and X-Men. Those were the two series that I was collecting. I started expanding from there to a couple of other titles, but those were the two that I was collecting every issue of.

AIPT: So really into the Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane era.

Gifted: Yes, yes. I guess my whole origin story comes more from the Saturday morning cartoons. I wasn’t born in the ’80s, I was born in the late ’70s, but I grew up in the ’80s, and Saturday morning cartoons were definitely one of the staples in my life. Saturday morning cartoons and martial arts, those were the two things that stood out.

AIPT: What was your beginning with STEM? When did you first encounter STEM concepts that you got interested in?

Gifted: My elementary school was George Washington Carver in Newark, New Jersey. George Washington Carver was one of the greatest inventors of the 19th century. He invented thousands of things with the peanut and the sweet potato. I used to see these images, and not really totally understand what his role in my life was, but I saw it all around me, and I’d just be interested in the science and math. I ended up going to the magnet school in my district, which was a science high school. And there came a number of experiences.

One was where I got to work at AT&T and got to work with engineers who looked like me. And from that point on, that was when I said I want to be an engineer. Throughout that time, I went to college, I majored in engineering, but at the same time was part of some grassroots efforts to help inspire the next generation of technology leaders into STEM. So that’s always been my interest, and it’s always been my passion, so even when I transitioned from engineering to education that’s always been something that I’ve looked to push forward.

AIPT: So, to fuse the two questions together — what was your first big brush with STEM concepts in comics? When did you first notice them? You gave a talk on the physics behind Gwen Stacy’s death [at New York Comic Con] last year; was there any one specific comic or incident that hit you?

Gifted: Yes. That actually goes back to my background. Coming from an engineering background and moving to writing comics and developing a whole comic series, I’ve always infused STEM topics into it. I did some research and learned that there were actually some comics out there that used STEM as a teaching tool. And then just going from a pedagogy and an instructional standpoint, looking at how children and adolescents learn, they learn from pictures. And they take those pictures and develop mental images.

So using comics, which are a pictorial format, to introduce more complex topics – I looked at research from individuals trying to do that. Not just for selective readers, but in Advanced Placement as well. So you have AP Literature and AP Physics classes that are using comics as a way to introduce topics, to review topics, to cover something at the end of the unit. I was like, “Wow, there’s no real platform for this right now; why don’t I introduce it to the world?”

And I ended up partnering with some other individuals who were doing some efforts into that … who I met at New York Comic Con, and actually got onto a panel with them at Awesome Con in Washington, D.C. And then moving forward as far as building the platform I had – P.B. Soldier – into a vehicle to be able to tell dynamic stories, as well as introduce computer science, engineering, and all of the other STEM fields.

AIPT: To pivot more to P.B. Soldier, do you plan on directly introducing STEM concepts in a more educational format into the comic? Or do you plan on just bringing them up more naturally within the story itself?

Gifted: It’s closer to the latter of the two. The concepts are more naturally embedded into the book, based on the nature of the character and the context of the political environment he’s in. So what we’re doing is more calling this stuff out, so we can look at various terms and concepts. What we also did was that, alongside the development of the actual graphic novel, we developed a “Hacker’s Guide” to P.B. Soldier, which is a resource for computer science. It touches on various resources, activities, colleges, for if you want to pursue computer science at a more academic level.

All of these things are embedded into the activity guide, as well as within the world of P.B. Soldier. These activities are very exciting – I always think about entry points, something that you can introduce to someone to get them talking about coding. By introducing coding in that more fun format that doesn’t commandeer the whole storyline — that’s why it’s a separate booklet or activity book that comes alongside the actual graphic novel. So if you’re looking to infuse that into the classroom, you can do that as well.

AIPT: That sounds really cool! So a big part of the graphic novel is the hacking and STEM concepts and the main story, but how much of this is going to focus on Nat’s identity? I see there’s a character in the book who is one of Nat’s ancestors.

Gifted: The historical aspect is infused into it. When we talk about the peripheral guides, that’s the technology aspect of it. But there’s also the historical piece, as well as the political environment in the comic. The graphic novel touches on various things – we talk about stop-and-frisk, we talk about the PATRIOT Act, we talk about the Espionage Act. All of those things are heightened in this fictional setting, but are based on real-world context.

So we took all these various concepts and used them as foreshadowing with Nat’s ancestors; how his ancestry impacts the present, and also plays a role in the future. It’s like a loop – sometimes people call them generational curses, but he’s got to understand his past in order to get past it and pave the path for his future, so he can break the cycle of what’s been going on for generation after generation after generation.

AIPT: You talked about how seeing engineers who looked like you was a big part of what got you into studying science and technology. Is that what you’re aiming for with P.B. Soldier?

Gifted: Yes, it is. One of the visual things we talk about, just through the research, we look at black students and their families, who represent only about 5% of the current workforce. We talk about exposure – I work in an urban school environment, and the young students are only really aware of what they’ve been directly exposed to. So I’m looking to shed more light on various STEM fields, and allow them to be able to explore their own creativity and imagination, and be able to see themselves as a part of that just like I did, and see the various opportunities there.

You look at the STEM fields, they have the largest growth market within the next 10 years … You look at the law field, the market is so saturated right now, so if you want to be a lawyer, there’s a limited number of opportunities out there for you. But with STEM, a lot of the job opportunities are being outsourced overseas. There’s not enough computer programmers, there’s not enough engineers, there’s not enough scientists, all of these things …

I think of an animated movie – all of the names in the credits are opportunities that a lot of students in the urban environment don’t have the opportunity to be a part of. And it’s not because they don’t have the skillset, but because they just don’t know about these opportunities. These are jobs that they’re interested in, but that they don’t know how to go through those doors. That’s where we come in, to try and introduce that there’s opportunities there, because you’re passionate about these things.

AIPT: That’s similar to what got me into computer science – I really wanted to make games as a kid. And that’s not where my career has gone, but it’s what got me looking towards STEM and towards these opportunities.

Gifted: Yeah, exactly. Sometimes all you need is that exposure, to know that this is possible. That the possibilities are there. I know a 12-year-old kid who learned how to develop his own app, making $7 million off of it, and he learned to do it off of YouTube. This was something he was very passionate about, and he learned it on his own.

A lot of people don’t know about the entry points to all of this stuff. You can develop an app, and put it on the iTunes store, and it costs you $99. The platform they give you, as far as coding goes, they provide that for free. So the initial investment, if you can find the time of course, the entry point is only $99. You can do a fundraiser for that, you could ask family members to invest in your idea, show them that you’re super passionate about it …

And as far as the connections that you needed to have for you to be a leader in the industry, you’d need to work for one of the larger entities, but for you to just get started and do something that you’re passionate about, the entry point is almost nothing. It’s just leveraging your resources that are currently out there.

AIPT: Absolutely. This is a good opportunity to pivot into this next question – as an educator, what have been your biggest observations about how kids in school learn about STEM concepts? What don’t the people who aren’t in education know about kids getting interested in STEM?

Gifted: Well, we need to understand a couple of things – especially at the high school level, and the secondary level, that most students who would be interested in STEM fields, but look to major in something else like liberal arts or humanities fields, do so because of the math. Mathematics is a barrier. Algebra 1 and Physical Education are, based on nationwide statistics, the subjects with the highest failure rates for our secondary population. That has been a barrier – you need algebra to get to higher level math – calculus, differential equations, all of those things, and those are the mathematics that you need to be successful in STEM fields.

You can do science, most people who are passionate about science do really well in it because science is more hands-on. When you get into the higher mathematical concepts, your calculus, your precalculus, your differential equations, they’re more abstract. So now, you don’t get those concrete models that you’re used to seeing, in math. And when you can’t make math real, which most individuals can’t because they don’t have a deep understanding of math, they only develop a cursory understanding of math, from a fluency standpoint. They don’t have the conceptual understanding. You should be able to put any concept in math in a pictorial fashion, so that people can actually visualize it, and be able to connect it to actual uses in the real world.

Coming in from engineering allowed me to do this at higher levels. I knew how distance and time were connected – the change in distance over time becomes velocity, and the change in velocity over time becomes acceleration. That’s the second derivative of the distance/time graph. Most people don’t know how to put that in perspective, so when we talk about those kinds of things, that’s where the barriers come. It becomes so abstract that people can’t connect to it, so they try to stray away from it. They don’t want to do the concepts, or they don’t like the concepts, as far as mathematics go, because they may have some internal fears, so they gravitate towards things that aren’t as restrictive.

So there, we need to introduce these advanced topics at a deeper, higher level. That’s been a barrier. So now, making it real and relevant is the key for allowing our young people to be able to connect with the concepts on a higher level so they can dive deeper into it and then see where it’s going to be directed later on in life. Most people think that, “Oh, as long as I can count money, I don’t need math,” but knowing that concept could determine flood rates, you could deal with situations that are going on in your own personal neighborhood, using math or science, most children don’t know that.

AIPT: That’s really insightful, and something I honestly didn’t think of. This is definitely something we could strive to do better with.

Gifted: That’s always been a barrier for most individuals who are looking to move into STEM fields, especially if you’re looking to move into engineering. Even for me, when I went into engineering, I took calculus 1, 2, 3, and I was like, “Oh man, yeah, calculus is crazy.” And then I took my engineering classes and I saw how calculus transformed problems, and I was like, “Oh man, I can’t get away from this stuff.”

But it allowed me to see how these concepts connected on a higher and deeper level, and to be able to connect it to something less abstract than an algebraic equation, and connect that to something real for the students.

AIPT: The last question I have for you is: Is there anyone or any group of people who are inspiring you right now?

Gifted: Well, there’s a number of independent artists that are doing a lot of great, great things. There’s a number of individuals – David F. Walker, who’s doing some phenomenal work right now … I actually have some inspiration from some TV shows. I’m still on season 1, because I had to rewatch it, but I’m on season 1 of Black Lightning. The writing in that is super phenomenal, how they take the dynamics of a family and tie the whole superhero and job to it, and how that plays out in an urban environment. In a black neighborhood. All of those things are very inspiring for the next level of work that we’re trying to do, as far as developing a series.

P.B. Soldier can be backed on Kickstarter until March 21.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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