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Can Nemo and Dory Revolutionize How We Teach Math in America?

July 11, 2016
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Can Nemo and Dory Revolutionize How We Teach Math in America?
Pixar in a Box provides students with tangible examples of how STEAM subjects can be applied in the real world. Photo © Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
Kids and parents alike love Pixar movies. Now, they're being used in the classroom as a tool to teach STEAM.

There’s one reliable way to quiet unruly kids: turn on a Pixar animated film. Teachers using class time to watch a movie is usually viewed as lazy, but a new online curriculum hosted by Khan Academy taps into children’s enthusiasm for these animated films to teach STEAM subjects (science, technology, engineering, arts and math).

Pixar in a Box, as the virtual curriculum is known, contains interdisciplinary lessons that parallel real design challenges facing Pixar’s animators. The classes, which are narrated by Pixar engineers, lend credence to teachers’ arguments that school lessons will be applicable to students’ eventual careers, even if the tough math problems don’t seem relevant now. Concepts like patterns and randomness, for example, could end with students crafting their own computer-generated dinosaur skin models, and a class on weighted averages and Pascal’s triangles results in a model character from Monsters, Inc.

Underlying each lesson are the principles of project-based learning: tying theoretical concepts to real-world problems. In doing so, Pixar in a Box’s creators believe students will be more engaged, as they pursue projects they care about rather than being forced to complete assignment after assignment. “A lot of time, when kids ask the question, ‘When am I gonna use this stuff?’ teachers don’t have a good answer,” says Tony DeRose, a Pixar senior scientist. “We want to give them authentic content that they can teach in the classrooms, showing how we addressed creative challenges we faced in the studio.”

In Pixar in a Box: Season 1: Rendering, students learn how technical artists at Pixar use ray-tracing and other mathematical algorithms to calculate pixel color and generate the final frames of a film, as seen in “UP.”Photo © Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

So far, teachers have reported that their students love the collaboration, which gives them an easier way to illustrate the Common Core curriculum. (Pixar employees also enjoy being a part of the program: “Now my parents will finally understand what I do,” is sometimes heard in the offices.)

Brit Cruise, the curriculum’s lead designer, says the collaboration with Pixar is also changing the way Khan Academy makes content. Normally, most of their lessons are one-off modules, but this curriculum ties several concepts together into an interactive narrative experience of how something gets made. He sees the collaboration with Pixar not only as “a chance to make something which I could send back to my younger self,” but also as a way to inspire millions of students to pursue STEAM careers in which they entertain (and teach) the next generation.

MORE: Investing in Future Innovation: This Visionary Program Gets Students Hooked on STEM

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