In the 1980s, actor Billy Dee Williams made his debut as the fictional character Lando Calrissian in the films The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and the Return of the Jedi (1983). Williams’ portrayal as Calrissian was certainly a significant milestone for an African American actor with a prominent role in the highly successful films created by George Lucas. The Calrissian character also appeared in Solo: A Star Wars Story in 2018 and was portrayed by actor Danny Glover.
Decades before T’Challa portrayed by actor Chadwick Boseman was featured in Marvel Studios’ Black Panther, Lando Calrissian was also a trailblazer and film superhero. Unlike T’Challa who was the leader of the fictional Wakanda, and used a vibranium-fitted suit  to fight his nemeses Erik Killmonger, Calrissian had a diverse pathway as a businessman and engineer . Yes, I will admit that Calrissian is a “flawed” hero, given that at one time he did double-cross Han and Leia (played by Harrison Ford and the late Carrie Fisher), but he eventually made the right decision to help defeat the evil empire.
In 2019, Williams returned to the screen as Calrissian in the new film Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker to defeat the evil empire. In fact, the fictional Calrissian character does not possess any super powers like Black Panther or has access to an endless supply of vibranium, but he does have important skills such as grit, adaptability, problem solving, creativity and team work , which are important for a successful career in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields. Instead, Calrissian effectively uses his critical thinking skills, which are important for his success. Therefore, analogous to Black Panther and his younger sister Shuri, Calrissian is also a role model for the next generation of STEM leaders.
Statistics reported by the National Science Foundation , clearly show that the U.S. STEM workforce is not reflective of current demographics and emphasizes that diversity, equity and inclusion in STEM remains a serious challenge. Research is certainly clear that diverse teams and inclusive work spaces lead to greater innovation and productivity . Thus, engaging students from diverse backgrounds is critical for the U.S. STEM workforce to fill the talent gap.
Pop culture and movies remains an important platform to engage diverse student populations in the STEM fields [6, 7]. If a student demonstrates excitement and enthusiasm about fictional characters such as Black Panther, Shuri, or Lando Calrissian, STEM educators can certainly use these characters to discuss careers in STEM. It is our responsibility as educators to effectively demonstrate to students how STEM impacts our daily experiences. Mobile cell phones and laptops and other electronic devices are powered with lithium-ion batteries. Thus, this provides a unique teaching opportunity to discuss the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry  and the importance of technology to society in the classroom with students. Keep in mind that Marvel Studios’ Black Panther, the Avengers and the Star Wars films all use futuristic technology to advance society.
Furthermore, Williams made recent headlines stating the he describes himself with both male and female pronouns, which lead to discussions about gender fluidity . He later clarified during a televised interview that he was stating that men should be more in touch with their softer or feminine side . Williams is 82-years-old and still is able to make headlines! Genius!
What other strategies can you use as an educator to connect with your students in the classroom? The next time you go to the movies, you should watch the film through the eyes of scientist. This could potentially lead you to develop some engaging strategies and/or inclusive pedagogy to make cultural connections to your students in the classroom. An interesting research study  published in 2016 concluded that students from historically underrepresented groups “may lose motivation to persist if they see science careers as unable to fulfill culturally relevant career goals.” Therefore, cultural connections are important to engage students from diverse backgrounds. In the end, this may lead to a lasting impression on your students, specifically on broadening the image of a STEM professional  and the importance of the STEM fields to continue to advance our society.
- Collins, S.N.; Appleby, L. “Black Panther, Vibranium and the Periodic Table,” Journal of Chemical Education, 2018, 95 (7), 1243-1244.
- (a) Ramos, D.-R. “Billy Dee Williams Set to Return To ‘Star Wars’ As Lando Calrissian,” (https://deadline.com/2018/07/billy-dee-williams-star-wars-episode-ix-lando-calrissian-disney-lucasfilm-jj-abrams-1202423642/; accessed Jan 5, 2020); (b) Lando Calrissian, Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lando_Calrissian; accessed Jan 5, 2020).
- Konda, A.E.; Fair, J.D. “Insight Into the Chemistry Skills Gap: The Duality Between Expected and Desired Skills,” J. Chem. Educ. 2017, 94, 304-310.
- National Science Foundation. Women, Minorities and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2015. (https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2017/nsf17310/; accessed February 26, 2016).
- Ouimet, M. “5 Numbers That Explain Why STEM Diversity Matters to All of Us,” (https://www.wired.com/brandlab/2015/05/5-numbers-explain-stem-diversity-matters-us/; accessed Jan 5, 2020).
- Yerrick, R. K.; Simons, T. “The Affordances of Fiction for Teaching Chemistry,” Science Education International, 2017, 28, pp 232-243.
- Lewis, L.; Jaussen, P.; Scrivener, M.; Shargel, D.; Meyer, E.; Delogu, F.; Shamir, L.; Collins, S. “Frankenstein 200 Years Later: Chemistry, Literature and Pop Culture,” The Chemical Educator, 2019, 24, pp 162 – 165.
- Press Release: The Nobel Prize in Chemistry (https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/chemistry/2019/press-release/; accessed Jan 5, 2020).
- O’Kane, C. “82-Year-Old Star Wars Star Billy Dee Williams Says He Uses Both Male and Female Pronouns.” (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/billy-dee-williams-gender-fluid-star-wars-actor-uses-both-male-and-female-pronouns-lando-donald-glover-pansexual-solo/; accessed Jan 6, 2020).
- Billy Dee Williams on His ‘Star Wars’ Return. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8iB1MPUEnGA; accessed Jan 6, 2020).
- Jackson, M.C.; Galvez, G.; Buonara, P.; Thoman, D.B. “Science That Matters: The Importance of a Cultural Connection in Underrepresented Students’ Science Pursuit.” CBE Life Sci. Edu. September 1, 2016 15:ar42 DOI:10.1187/cbe.16-01-0067.
- Schinske, J.N.; Perkins, H.; Snyder, A.; Wyer, M. “Scientist Spotlight Homework Assignments Shift Students’ Stereotypes of Scientists and Enhance Science Identity in a Diverse Introductory Science Class.” CBE Life Sci. Educ. September 1, 2016 15:ar47 DOI:10.1187/cbe.16-01-0002.