As STEM education initiatives have grown in popularity over recent years, efforts have sprouted across the country to engage kids in those fields of study. Over the past week, Khan Academy, a champion of free science and math education, debuted an educational partnership with Pixar Animation Studios to jump into the trend. The result is Pixar in a Box, an online series of courses that teach students the math and science behind beloved movies like Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. Students entering “the box” can complete simple lessons that teach them the skills needed to use computers to animate actions, design characters, or light scenes, and the presenters in those lessons continually emphasize the foundation of all their work: math. It’s that foundation the prompted Karma Vince to jump right in and see what cool toys Pixar has placed in the box.
On a rainy Wednesday, Karma was working on the Stretching and Shrinking unit with her seventh grade math students. After a warm-up of fraction division exercises, students moved into the core content of the class, but as this stage began, Karma sidelined to introduce Pixar in a Box through their five-minute welcome video which generated excitement and outlined the lesson approaches. She encouraged students to explore this resource by following a link posted in Google Classroom and then earn extra credit by writing reviews of the lessons. Those reviews would include a summary of the lesson and recommendation on whether the entire class would benefit from watching it. One student raised his hand to ask, “Can we use stars for our reviews? Like four or five stars?” Karma smiled, “I think that would be excellent.” The student pounded his fist and shouted, “Yes!”
But the best part of this lesson was yet to come. Karma next played a short demonstration of animation software that explained how coordinate systems were used to move simple animated figures. The all-familiar x and y axes appeared, and the narrator explained how manipulating these values manipulated the figure. A slight preview of the content of Pixar in a Box was revealed, connecting the math these students knew to the movies they use to dream.
And then came the homework. Students opened their spirals to discuss the shapes they had drawn on coordinate planes, shapes given cute names like “Lump” and “Wump.” They entered into discussion with Karma about how these simple geometric characters were similar or not and how x/y rules governed those relationships. The students raised hands often and helped each other build the concepts of similarity and proportionality that formed the basis of Karma’s shrinking and stretching unit. They watched her manipulate the SmartBoard images as they examined their own, drawn on graph paper and pasted into their spirals. The exchange was energetic and engaging.
But the payoff came late in the lesson. During the discussion of x/y values governing shrinking and stretching, Karma discussed a simple computer function. On an image, one can click the corner and drag to expand the image without distorting it. In other words, the dragging increases or decreases the x and y values in proportion to create a similar shape. Once she made that connection, seventh grader David Dubiel raised his hand to exclaim, “Computers are literally just math. They’re nothing but math!” Karma smiled and agreed.
And that was it. Karma had started her students in the exciting, glitzy world of Pixar, moved them into simple animation demonstrations, onto the coordinate planes of junior high math, and back to the computer-driven world of Pixar with grace. David’s spark of understanding was the gift Karma hoped to give to each of these students, a gift that Pixar will help expand when they explore the online world of Pixar in a Box. As David said, computers are “literally just math.”
As we seek to engage our students while remaining true to our content standards, we often struggle to find moments that make the concepts authentic, to show students these concepts alive and kicking in the adult world. But more than that, we struggle to merge that authenticity with excitement. The simple partnership of a master Sylvania teacher and the creative geniuses at Pixar made that excitement possible. And as the rain pounded darkly outside of Arbor Hills on this dreary Wednesday, a group of students realized that they could enter the imaginative world of toys and monsters through the math that teachers like Karma give them every day.