Education Reviews · Science of Disney · Uncategorized

Science Behind Pixar Museum Exhibit Review

Since starting my PhD in Learning Sciences, I’ve taken quite a few classes that have been focused on the design of learning environments and museums in particular. So I have become overly critical of museums and museum exhibits as learning opportunities because I am now better equipped with theories and ideas about what educational goals the designers were intending to achieve and how they were trying to do so.

Even with this more critical perspective, I think the Science Behind Pixar exhibit at The Henry Ford was the best museum exhibit I have ever experienced. Even if you aren’t a huge Disney or Pixar fan, I highly recommend going to see the exhibit in its next location (it is set to close at the Michigan location after March 18th) or at least check out the website that has a majority of the activities available online (linked below) because you’ll learn a ton about movie-making in addition to applications of science and math that you may never known about.


The entire exhibit is meant to showcase the combination of art, math, and computer science that enables Pixar to create their award-winning movies by telling the stories of how a movie gets made. Additionally, one of the explicit and NSF-funded goals of the exhibit was to support novice learners in understanding computational thinking, specifically problem decomposition.

These goals are accomplished through nine themed areas aligned with nine departments of Pixar Studios:

  1. Story & Art
  2. Modeling
  3. Rigging
  4. Surfaces
  5. Sets & Cameras
  6. Animation
  7. Simulation
  8. Lighting
  9. Rendering

After watching an introductory video that highlights the majority of the content dedicated to Story and Art, museum visitors enter the Modeling department and proceed through the rest of the departments at will. In each department, there are videos and interactive activities centered around a Pixar challenge that had to be resolved using math and science. The videos include interviews with Pixar employees about their childhoods, their jobs and about the math and science they used to solve the challenge in their department. In each department, there is at least one guided exploration activity and one more open-ended exploration activity designed to give visitors hands-on experience with solving the challenge for the department.


Some of my favorite activities for their content and engagement were the Programming Natural Variety in Sets & Cameras, Surface Appearance Workstation in Surfaces, and Crowd Simulation Workstation in Simulation which will likely be getting their own blog posts soon!

What Was Done Well

The overall story and flow of the entire exhibit really gave a nice direction to the exhibit as a whole. The introductory video (also available on the exhibit homepage) outlines the various jobs of the departments at Pixar that contribute to making a film – the same jobs that you’ll get to try a hand at in the exhibit. With each activity having at least two workstations, multiple people could be engaging at the same time which increased the capacity of the exhibit and encouraged interaction among visitors among and between parties.

The effort put forth to really make this a family-going experience was apparent in all of the elements of the exhibit. Each video and screen-based activity also had a transcript and audio recordings of the instructions so that blind, deaf, or hard-of-hearing patrons can have equal access to the content. One of the aspects that I appreciated most was the presence of stools in front of many of the videos and activities and the placement of the video screens at more of a kid level than an adult level; providing the stools allowed adults to get down at the kids’ level for more intimate interactions, to provide a lap for smaller children, or to just rest their limbs for a lengthy exhibit experience.


Additionally, one of the strongest and most consistent arcs throughout the exhibit were the stories from the Pixar employees about how their childhood and passions shaped their career. From mentions of the computer program Logo to breaking an expensive camera apart to figure out how it worked, these personal touches were clearly intended to inspire younger visitors to lean in to their hobbies and keep dreaming of one day working for Pixar. Knowing more about the various positions at Pixar can help kids figure out career aspirations in STEAM fields that they might otherwise never know existed.

The science and math content was foregrounded in each activity with brief descriptions and diagrams. Science content included the physics of light and color and materials as well as engaging in experimental practices like making predictions and testing variables systematically. I learned about applications of 3D coordinate planes, angles of rotation, how to create 3D objects from 2D shapes, the Monte Carlo simulation, and mathematical patterns in nature to name a few.

The activities were designed with several learning principles in mind. Leveraging the power of story-telling for learning, the linear nature of the exhibit made it more memorable and the pieces building on each other scaffolded visitors to build integrated knowledge structures.

The activities were both authentic and exploratory, which, according to constructionism and inquiry-based learning, are some of the main requirements for a successful learning experience. In particular, the open-ended activities allowed visitors to apply and further hone their understanding of the math and science principles to create and experiment with tools that Pixar employees would actually use. For example, the Programming Natural Variety activity involved adjusting parameters to generate grass with different appearances which seamlessly integrated randomization and scientific research on nature’s mathematical patterns.

Furthermore, the exhibit used several comparisons (what my PhD research focuses on, so I’m biased!) to demonstrate the power of the technology for telling better stories such as subdivision and surface refraction contributing to more realistic characters and lighting significantly altering the mood of a scene.


What could still be improved

More inclusion of more recent movies

I was disappointed to not see more from Pixar’s Coco but the exhibit was designed before the movie came out. Cars 3 which has also received lots of praise for featuring Cruz Ramirez as a female protagonist and Finding Dory were also not included (although there is a large model of Dory for one of the activity stations or to take pictures with). If you or your child are going in with the expectation of seeing these characters or learning more about the technological advancements for these movies, you may be disappointed.


More resources for parents and educators to use with their children in the space

While several of the interactive activities are accessible and engaging for learners of all ages, providing at least some questions for adults or children to ask of each other would likely spark more conversation and curiosity around the math and science content. I found myself asking one child who was trying to achieve a spooky mood for the Up lighting activity, “How did you do that?” and I think having more questions to get kids to explain their learning and processing can help them take away more from the experience.


More detail on some of the science or resources to follow-up with to learn more

My interests were definitely piqued but I found that the “More Info” buttons included in some of the activities did not provide enough of a detailed explanation of the science and math underlying the technology. While my desired level of understanding may not align with that of the target audience, having these materials more easily accessible in a pamphlet or more obviously linked on the website would be helpful to other curious attendees (The Pixar in a Box on Khan Academy seems to have the most in-depth and germane resources but I had to click beyond the front page to find it). Including some scannable QR codes to more in-depth explanations would have also been a modest yet helpful addition.

More representation of minority employees and characters

While Pixar has recently said that they aim to include the voices of more women and people of color in their company and products, this was only somewhat represented in the exhibit materials. Several of the video interviews with employees were with white males and people of East or South Asian descent who are stereotyped to be good at math and science; I only recall one black woman and she was an intern and not yet a full employee. As the company moves towards more diversifying the workplace, some more interviews can be done and hopefully more of the movies will center around characters whose stories have not yet been featured on the big screen.

More Resources

The official exhibit website has several of the videos that can be seen in the exhibit for people that cannot attend or for those who want to get a better idea of what to expect. Most of the content of the exhibit is available online except for some of the Animation activities that required physical interaction such as to create a stop-motion video of Luxo Jr. jumping.

The webpage for educators has several resources for teachers and parents alike to use with their children. Many of the laudable inquiry-driven activities from the exhibit are available online in full (I found that they worked better in Safari than in Chrome) and there are some additional activity cards with guiding questions to ask students.

The Pixar in a Box collaboration with Khan Academy is surprisingly extensive. There are a handful of sequences of videos and activities around story-telling, simulation, color science, virtual cameras, effects, patterns and more science and math topics. I have not had time to completely explore it but I am usually skeptical of Khan Academy content because it is predominantly lecture-driven and the questions and activities aren’t much of an improvement over inauthentic, rote worksheets. At a glance, the Pixar touch likely makes it more engaging and productive than what I might usually expect from Khan Academy.

The webpage for researchers has direct links to the purposefully designed computational thinking activities and information about posters that were presented on research done in the exhibit. Some of the posters feature more details on the demographics of the research participants and the vast majority are Caucasian. I hope that more efforts are being made to recruit more students and families of color to attend the exhibit. More research should also be done on whether the online materials are being used by similar populations.

Ask a Pixar Scientist allows curiosity to continue beyond the exhibit by publishing kids’ and adults’ lingering questions with responses from actual Pixar employees.


Let me know what resources and activities you thought were the most fun to play around with online or in-person or which ones you’re most curious about learning more about!

Princess Life · Science of Disney · Uncategorized

Science of Disney: Sleeping Death

For the first post in my Fantasyland February series (I promise I’ll write more soon), I wanted to dive into a few science topics related to Sleeping Beauty, the princess who was awakened from a deep slumber by true love’s kiss. Hopefully none of the super cool science information below puts you to sleep!


So what caused Sleeping Beauty’s coma or death-like slumber?

Including Juliet imbibing a sleeping draught or Snow White eating a poisoned apple , fictional characters have been put into death-like states (or faked their own deaths) in myriad ways. So what likely caused Sleeping Beauty’s death-like state? How might pricking a finger have led to the princess losing consciousness? And could true love’s kiss really awaken someone from such a state? Maybe the magical secret is the too-coincidental-to-be-overlooked common thread of roses (that famous Shakespearean line, the color of Snow White’s lips, Sleeping Beauty’s secret identity), maybe it’s science or maybe it’s both.


According to The Film Theorists, plants may be the culprit behind these medieval motionless maladies. But unfortunately the suggested plants refute my rose hypothesis: none of the likely suspects are in the Rosaceae (rose) family. First, atropa belladonna, a poisonous plant commonly found in medieval Germany (in which the authors of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, the Brothers Grimm, lived) might be what caused these princesses’ death-like states. In addition to being poisonous when ingested, this plant was often used to make poisonous arrows. And arrows are pretty similar to spindles, so it is possible that the spindle with which Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger was also coated in the same belladonna poison.

Atropa belladonna is actually a combination of the name for a Greek Fate and the Italian word meaning beautiful woman

Atropa belladonna’s deathly powers can be attributed to a chemical makeup that is high in alkaloids. These alkaloids work by blocking receptors in the nervous system for a chemical called acetylcholine, like blocking all of the doors to the elevators and stairwells to prevent you (the acetylcholine in this analogy) from getting to the right floor of a building (neurons that control movement of muscles that regulate breathing and neurons that regulate heartbeat the heart). One of the main side effects of the specific alkaloid in atropa belladonna is to speed up the heartbeat, eventually leading to heart attack. Although the mechanism of delivery for this poison seemed good, it is more likely that Sleeping Beauty’s heartrate slowed down to a restful, death-like state rather than speeding up.


Another hypothesis that I think is more likely is that Sleeping Beauty went into a hypoglycemic diabetic coma after pricking her finger on a spindle that may have been coated in insulin.These comas are caused by the concentration of sugar in blood reaching too low of levels and the hormone insulin reduces the amount of sugar in the blood. While it is highly unlikely that Maleficent was able to isolate insulin into a substance in medieval times, the spindle might not have been necessary at all; the sum of experiences that Sleeping Beauty experienced leading up to the finger-pricking moment may have also caused the coma.  The clues are all there – she didn’t have a chance to eat her birthday dinner or cake and then had to walk briskly to the castle which would’ve depleted her body’s sugar reserves. Hypoglycemic diabetic comas have symptoms such as fatigue, weakness and light-headedness as well as shallow breathing which could all be some of the things that we see Sleeping Beauty experiencing in the Disney film. Furthermore, it is actually feasible that this state could have been cured by true love’s kiss. If Prince Philip’s lips and tongue were coated in several grams of glucose, this could have been enough to rebalance Sleeping Beauty’s blood sugar levels by allowing her to digest the glucose. All in favor of renaming Prince Philip to Prince Sugarlip from now on, say aye!


Lastly, the third hypothesis is that Sleeping Beauty suffered head trauma and a subsequent coma after pricking her finger. But, Sarah, you might say, that’s silly; pricking a finger has nothing to do with head injury! And this is where my personal experience with something called a vasovagal syncope allows me to undermine that assumption. Vasovagal syncope causes someone to lose consciousness, often for only a few seconds or minutes, because some sort of external stimulus causes nerve signals (the same ones affected by atropa belladonna chemicals) to dramatically decrease heart rate, which lowers blood pressure, which prevents more blood and more oxygen to reach the brain.

My handful of vasovagal response experiences have been caused by triggers of descriptions pain or anything to do with breaking bones but several other people are triggered by needles or blood. You know what else is sharp like a needle and can draw blood? A spindle! So Sleeping Beauty could have lost consciousness and fell to the floor due to a vasovagal response to pricking her finger. In the process, she could have hit her head hard enough on the cobblestones of the tower room to be put into a coma. Unfortunately, there is still no scientific evidence showing that a kiss has the ability to awaken anyone from coma.

Thanks for reading!

Which do you think is the most plausible scientific explanation?

Check out my Instagram posts @thephdprincess for more science related to Sleeping Beauty coming up this week! I just had too much information to fit into this one post!


Diabetic Comas

Vasovagal syncope

Listicles · Princess Life · Uncategorized

Disney Women in STEM

For The United Nations’ International Day of Women and Girls in Science (#IDWGS), I wanted to draw attention to the representation of the phenomenal females of Disney. Unfortunately, there aren’t very many easily recognizable female characters in STEM in Disney media. Of the approximately 200 characters classified as scientists on Disney Wiki, only about 20 of them were female and even fewer were in more than one episode of a TV show or in a major motion picture. Below I highlight some of the better known and lesser known females in science roles from Disney animation, live-action and park attractions.


Honey Lemon is kind of the perfect combination of the traditional Disney Princess and nerdy scientist. She is kind, optimistic, fashionable AND an adept chemical engineering student. I love how she counters most of the stereotypes of a mad scientist as a crotchety Caucasian man and helps to break down the shock that most people have women can’t be both beautiful and smart.


Gogo Tamago is an industrial design and mechanical engineering student in Big Hero 6 who uses the science of magnetism as her super power. Her line of “Stop whining, woman up!” gave a clue into how the culture of San Fransokyo is different from our current society. Athletic and sarcastic, she deserves just as much respect and admiration as the more traditionally feminine Honey Lemon.

Vanellope von Schweetz is an actual Princess (and President!) but also a resourceful enough engineer to build her own kart to compete in Sugar Rush races. She could have used a little bit more knowledge of computer code but her spunk and sympathetic nature make her a very endearing child racing prodigy.


Gadget Hackwrench (who also has a ride in Disneyland’s Toontown named after her!) is one of Chip and Dale’s friends (and main love interests) but doesn’t get as much recognition as she deserves. She’s an inventor and tinkerer that always comes up with creative solutions using everyday items. She can be feisty but is nevertheless a valuable member of the Rescue Rangers.

Lesser Known

The majority of animated STEM females have very small roles and in other cases they are the villains, like the Evil Queen, Ursula or Yzma using scientific (but more often just magical) powers to craft various potions. In more recent productions, like on Disney Jr.’s Miles from Tomorrowland, there are some more notable women and girls in STEM.

Tanya Vanderflock from Mighty Ducks is similar to Gadget Hackwrench in that she uses her mechanical genius to help her accomplish team’s goals.


Vivian Francis Porter from Kim Possible also suffered from people not taking her intellect seriously due to her stunning beauty. Maybe she’ll make an appearance in the upcoming live-action Kim Possible!

Sara BellumRhoda Dendron and the villainous Anna Matronic from Darkwing Duck have great names but very little screentime.


Loretta Callisto is the main character’s supportive and tech-savvy sister and Dr. Zephyr Skye is her storm-hunting and kick-butt role model (voiced by a real meteorologist) from Miles from Tomorrowland on Disney Jr. Hopefully these characters will inspire more young girls to want to be scientists!


Live Action

While there are a handful of females with doctorates in Disney live-action films, very few of them have prominent roles or rich back-stories and plots like their male counterparts. Some of the best representation actually comes from the Marvel movies and even then, the studios could do much better by giving these wonder women their own movies instead of relegating them to supporting roles.

Carina Smyth from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a very passionate and determined astronomer living in difficult times. Her wrongful conviction as a witch definitely is not so far off from shaming of women that still happens today.


Gabriella Montez from High School Musical also fits the stereotype of being ridiculed and being an outcast for being a math and science nerd but she doesn’t let silly boys stop her from pursuing her dreams of going to an amazing school and maintaining her passion for singing and competing in the science olympiad.

Dr. Sara Jean Reynolds in Flubber and Dr. Abigail Chase from National Treasure both serve primarily as the love interests in their respective movies but have also achieved a great deal of success in their fields as evidenced by their prominent positions. I would love to see spin-offs showing the adventures and challenges they overcame to get to where they are.



Jane Foster is a well-known astrophysicist and is Thor’s main love interest. It was great to see Natalie Portman portray another powerful woman.

Maya Hansen from Iron Man 3 is a botanist who has a brief relationship with Tony Stark.

Betty Ross is a nuclear physicist in the Hulk comics and movie and will be making an appearance in the upcoming Infinity War movie.


Lastly, Leia Organa was not only a princess and general but also secretly a doctor, but more on that at another time.


Dr. Jaclyn Ogden is the primary expert on banshees on the planet Pandora and restarted the Avatar program so that guests can partake in a similar rite of passage as the Na’Vi. (I have a feeling she was named after the real life Jackie Ogden who is an experimental psychologist and director of animal programs for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts).


Mary Oceaneer is one of the few females in the fictional elite club, the Society of Explorers and Adventurers. She must know a fair bit about cartography, astronomy and the mechanics of captaining a ship and diving for treasure in order to be a successful treasure hunter. She inspired attractions on the Disney Cruise Line and at Typhoon Lagoon – a water park in Florida.

Doctor Marsh from DINOSAUR and the woman in Spaceship Earth are some of the only women of color in science in any Disney media and one of them doesn’t even talk. Perhaps now that Disney owns 20th Century Fox, the woman in Spaceship Earth can finally be tied to one of the awesome ladies of Hidden Figures and given a line.


To end on a positive note, women and girls visiting the parks can be inspired by real-life females in STEM by observing the hard-working women in Living with the Land or on the Behind the Seeds tour as well as in the light-hearted demonstrations of science principles in the SpectacuLab. Furthermore, Disney has highlighted several women in its Every Role a Starring Role and Disney Careers YouTube videos; check out my playlist of these women here.

Behind the Seeds


Are there any Disney women in STEM that you think deserve more recognition? Or what kind of women in STEM would you like to see represented in Disney media?

Science of Disney · Uncategorized

Science of Disney: Drop Rides


Two of the most jaw-dropping Disney attractions – the Tower of Terror and Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout! – employ some plussed up elevators for an exciting and sometimes nauseating ride experience. Dropping 13 stories at a speed faster than freefall requires some pretty interesting science!

The Ride Vehicle

Most of the sources I consulted say that the Guardians of the Galaxy gantry lift or Tower of Terror elevator is an example of a simple traction elevator. Traction elevators operate as pulley systems. For Disney’s versions, each elevator shaft has two “drums” or wheels with cables running over them attached to motors located on the top floor. The cables from one drum are attached to the elevator vehicle or “cab”; the cables from the other drum are attached to a counterweight. Another set of cables is attached to to the bottom of the cab, goes around another pulley wheel at the bottom of the shaft and is attached to the bottom of the elevator cab.


This design is pretty clever because it relies on a few laws of physics to reduce the amount of electricity required to run it! If we want to move the elevator up, we have to do work (a formal concept in physics, not like the chores that Cinderella did every day) in order to increase its potential energy. The physics concept of work is the amount of force applied across some distance: if we want to move the elevator up 13 stories (or about 130 feet) we have to put in a lot more work than if we wanted to move it 13 inches. The force that is applied across that 13 stories or 13 inches would have to be equal and opposite to the weight of the cab full of people.

The counterweight helps reduce the amount of force and thus the amount of work that the motors have to generate because gravity pulling down on the counterweight does some of the work for the motor. Gravity pulling down on the counterweight causes a force on the cables that is in the same direction as the elevator cab going up. But usually this counterweight doesn’t have as much mass and therefore not as much weight as the elevator, so the motor has to do the last bit of work to pull up on the cables attached to the cab.

For the cab to be “dropped” down the shaft, gravity could do all the work, but that wasn’t enough for Disney Imagineers. For the fall, an engine generates up to 1200 volts of electricity (10 times the electricity in a standard American outlet) to spin the motor in the opposite direction and pull down on the elevator. Combining this additional pull from the motor-driven cables accelerates the cab at a rate faster than gravity which makes for a shriek-worthy sensation.


The Experience

In real life, many people are scared of the possibility of an elevator plummeting to the ground, no matter how matter whether its 13 stories or just 3. But it is much more likely to wind up stuck in an elevator (sorry for the claustrophobes out there!) than it is to have an elevator crash all the way to the ground because there are elevators are equipped with so many back-up systems to prevent them from falling. Elevators only need one functioning cable to operate normally but they usually have at least three (each Disney ride elevator has five). Even if all of the cables were to be non-functional, which is highly unlikely due to regular maintenance checks on the wear and tear of the cables, each elevator has two braking systems which are also examined routinely. One braking system works to stop the motor from spinning and the other stops the elevator from falling by extending a brake into the guide rails of the shaft.


Even going into the ride knowing that the ride is totally safe, the feeling of freefall can be quite frightening. Freefall is the name for when the only force acting on an object (for example, 21 human bodies in a metal box) is the acceleration due to gravity (32.2 feet per second per second) but we know from our exploration above, that the elevator falls even faster than freefall due to the motor putting in work. The elevators on Guardians of the Galaxy and Tower of Terror reach speeds of 39 miles per hour!

I have to save the science behind the magic of the Fifth Dimension portion of Tower of Terror at Disney’s Hollywood Studios for another day, but comment below with which version of this terrifying tower ride is your favorite!


Short & Sweet Stats

Translation of a German Film about Paris’s Tower Construction

More on Elevators

More on Tower of Terror Motors

Explore more Physics!

How Counterweight Works Mathematically

More Fun

Tower of Terror Simulation Game

Science of Disney · Uncategorized

Science of Disney: Smellitizers

From the sweet wafting of vanilla on Main Street, USA to the slow burning of wood in Spaceship Earth and the barrage of ocean breeze and orange groves in the various iterations of Soarin, Disney employs some relatively simple technology to enhance the sensory experience of their park and make your memories that much stronger.

How do Disney’s scent machines work?

Disney’s scent machines, often referred to as smellitizers or smellitzers, are used throughout the parks in various attractions, including but not limited to Soarin’, Spaceship Earth, Living with the Land, Stitch’s Great Escape, Journey into Imagination, and Muppets Vision 3D to accompany sights and sounds and make the attractions feel much more realistic. These smellitizers are descendants of Smell-O-Vision which was used in movie theaters in the 1950s but quickly declined in popularity. Smell-O-Vision in theaters failed primarily because the fans used to dissipate the scents were loud and the scents took too long to dissipate to the audience so that they were not synced properly with the film which both detracted from the movie-watching experience. Imagine not smelling the dirt from Mt. Kilimanjaro until the Paris scene – doesn’t really make you feel like you are transported to either locale, does it? What’s so special about Disney’s technology is that the smells are timed precisely, released relatively discreetly and directly, dissipate quickly and can be used repeatedly for around 80 to 100 showings a day per theater. Put simply, Disney’s machines involve programming a container of a scented substance to be positioned in front of a fan and turning on the fan to blow air across the substance and toward the audience. This process works because of how chemicals become airborne and how we smell, which I explain below.

What causes smell?

We can only smell substances that are sufficiently volatile. Volatility doesn’t mean that the substances are evil or mean like Scar or Maleficent but rather, a volatile substance has a tendency to vaporize, or turn into a gaseous form. We are only able to smell things when the molecules that make them up are in gaseous form because only gases can reach the space in our skull where we detect smells. But how do substances that are not gases to begin with transform into gases?

Typically, substances transition from liquid into gas form, like when we boil liquid water and it turns into water vapor. Similarly, scented candles distribute scent by heating solid wax first into a liquid and then into a gas. But liquids are difficult to control in machinery, thus smellitizers are not likely to use substances in liquid form.

Because we are still seemingly able to smell the scents of things like candles, soaps, and perfumes even when they are in seemingly solid form, is there another way that smellitizers could achieve their desired effect? Yes! They could either rely on containers of chemicals in gaseous form already or on a process of transforming a solid into a gas called sublimation, which is the same process at work in solid air fresheners.

Sublimation requires very special conditions depending on the material in order for the molecules in a solid to have enough energy to become a gas. Heating a solid air freshener is one way to cause sublimation and distribute scent but I think it is unlikely that Disney uses nearly constant heat in all of its smellitizers if it can be avoided because of the high cost of supplying enough energy for such a process. Furthermore, regular life experience seems to indicate that solid air fresheners work pretty effectively even when not in a heated location. Thus, alternative materials or conditions need to be used to make a solid substance in a smellitizer smell.

The most likely explanation is that blowing cool air over the scented substance (typically composed of volatile organic compounds) with a fan lowers the air pressure above the scented substance by blowing away the molecules that were present before. The same process is at work when wind blowing over a puddle causes the puddle to evaporate more quickly. With fewer molecules present above the scented substance or puddle, more molecules can escape into the air. More molecules turning into gas form results in a higher likelihood that we will detect a smell.

How do we smell?

Chemicals from smell-producing objects travel through the air, into our nostrils (or through our mouth and to the back our throat), through our nasal cavity until they reach a section of the nasal cavity called the olfactory epithelium. The olfactory epithelium is a membrane covered in mucus that traps the chemicals for smell and is littered with 40 million olfactory neurons. Each of these neurons has special proteins in their membranes which function like locks that are only opened by the proper smell molecule key.

After the molecule unlocks all the receptors that it can, the neurons with those receptors activate and send a signal to a different part of the sensory nervous system called the olfactory bulb, which is just a bundle of neurons. In addition to sending the signal from the olfactory bulb straight to the olfactory cortex (where higher-order processing occurs), the signal is sent to both the amygdala, which is responsible for emotions, and the hippocampus, which is integral for memory formation.


Why is smell so powerful for triggering memories and emotions?

The several neurons activated by a smell’s molecules are usually arranged in a particular spatial pattern in the olfactory bulb that is gradually (through repetition) associated with the object that caused the smell. This recognition is how a memory for a smell is formed, just like the activation patterns associated with the color red in the visual cortex or our friend’s voice in the auditory cortex are paired together over time. Because we have more types of receptors for smells (at least 350!) than we do for sight, our memories for smells can be much more specific and also require less complicated integration of sensory information. This specificity may be one of the reasons why we can recall a more specific set of memories from a smell than from just an image (such as a photo of a perfume bottle or the word “rose” instead of the smell associated with each).

Additionally, there are fewer steps involved in the pattern recognition of smells (through the olfactory bulb then to the cortex) than the pattern recognition of sights or sounds (which must first go through a traffic control center called the thalamus). The sensory pathways for smell are much more integrated with the amygdala and hippocampus than other sensory pathways, which likely served our ancestors well in their survival: having a better memory for smells of predators and dangerous foods would prevent death.

Furthermore, smell memories are some of the best-preserved over time. If the first time a memory for a scent is formed occurs during childhood, positive emotions associated with nostalgia can make that memory even more powerful. This may explain why the faintest smell of a churro can bring me back to walking along the Rivers of America in New Orleans Square and why I burst into tears when the Disneyland 60th Anniversary fireworks were accompanied by gingerbread scented “snow” that reminded me of baking gingersnaps with my grandmother.

What scent (Disney or non-Disney) is the most powerful for you? For me, it’s the smell of oranges from Soarin’ and the smell of fresh-cut grass from home.



Patent for Soarin’ Ride System

Patent for Soarin’ Smellitizer

Illustrated Video of Smell by Ted-ED and Rose Eveleth

History of scent-emitting technology

Linda Buck’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech Transcript for Smell Receptors

Arshamian A, Iannilli E, Gerber JC, Willander J, Persson J, Seo H-S, Hummel T, & Larsson M. The functional neuroanatomy of odor evoked autobiographical memories cued by odors and words. Neuropsychologia 51 (2013), 123-131.

Where to Buy Disney Scents (not sponsored)

Walter and Rosie Candle Co.

WED Way Candle Company

Science of Disney · Uncategorized

Science of Disney: California Screamin’

Tantalizing trills of a triangle, a cadence of carnival bells, then a countdown – 5…4…3…2…1! – and the screaming begins.

California Screamin’ at Disney’s California Adventure is set to close January 8th, 2018 and be re-themed with an Incredibles theme to become the Incredicoaster. Today, I’ll explain some science concepts integral to the launch of this awesome ride.

How does Screamin’ launch you from 0 to 55 miles per hour in under 5 seconds? Most roller coasters rely on a motor and chains to pull the train up a lift hill (the initial tallest hill) to provide enough potential energy to make it all the way around the track, but Screamin’ manages to send a train around the longest looping roller coaster track (6072 feet!) without a mechanical lift hill. Instead, this roller coaster uses a linear induction motor. How does a linear induction motor work? In a few words, with high-powered electromagnets and electromagnetic induction. To explain further, let’s review some basic physics.

Charges (like electrons) moving together in one direction, like in a wire conducting electricity (literally the movement of electrons) create an electromagnetic field around the flow of charges. When two magnets or two electricity carrying wires creating electromagnetic fields are brought close to each other, the electromagnetic fields between the two electromagnetic objects combine depending on the direction. If the fields are going in the same direction, the force created by the field is stronger between them; this occurs when magnets of the same polarity come into proximity with one another. When the two fields are going in opposite directions, a weaker force is created like when you combine a negative number (-5) and a positive number (7) to get a number that has a smaller absolute value (2) than either original number; this occurs when magnets of opposite polarity come into proximity with one another.

Like in other domains of physics and chemistry, an equilibrium, in this case of forces, is the most stable and thus desirable state. In order to get rid of the stronger or weaker forces, the magnets want to move to a state of equilibrium. When magnets of the same polarity create a stronger force between them, moving away from or repelling each other leads to an equilibrium state.

The launch system for California Screamin’ employs this idea of movement as a result of repelling magnets to move the train forward. There are several slots in the track of California Screamin’ that have electromagnets (unclear whether these are coils of wire or metal plates) with current flowing in one of three states (inward direction, outward direction, or not flowing at all) regulated by switching on and off a connected battery at different times. This battery is controlled such that each small section has an electromagnetic field going in a different direction from the section adjacent to it.

After the train is in position on the launch section of the track, the electromagnetic fields at the beginning of the launch section are turned on by “a 25-megawatt transformer [feeding] a 5,000 horsepower variable frequency drive” in a “100-yard-long room beneath the ride” according to this New York Times article. The magnetization of the track causes movement of electrons in a metal blade attached to the bottom of the train so that the electrons align with the electromagnetic field of the track. This movement within the metal blade creates electromagnetic fields within the metal blade called eddy currents. The electromagnetic fields of these eddy currents interact with the electromagnetic fields of the track to create repulsions and move the train forward. This process continues as the current in each section of track cycles through each possible state (in, out, or off). The wheels of the coaster keep it guided along the track as the train picks up speed with each subsequent repulsion and the riders shriek with delight (or fear).

The same process is at work when the coaster needs to pick up speed over the highest hill after the launch as well as any time the coaster needs to brake (although in this case, the electromagnetic fields work to push the coaster in the opposite direction, effectively slowing it down).

Can you guess which other Disney rides use this same technology?



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PhD Life · Uncategorized

PhD Friday Week 1 Synthesis

For the past few months, I’ve been in a rut regarding my research topic. On one hand, I feel like I am just scratching the surface of an immensely large body of literature on analogy and comparison for learning in laboratory and classroom settings, which makes is both overwhelming and motivating. But on the other hand, I also feel like pursuing my current line of research is too theoretical and not preparing me for the kind of career I want to impact learning beyond the classroom by designing educational technology.

After reading the papers I summarize below, I feel like I’ve finally had a breakthrough that can combine both my theoretical and applied interests. In addition to helping me think of some new research ideas, I think the learning principles discussed are relevant to teachers and learners outside of academia. I look forward to discussing any ideas that the following article summaries make you think about!

Gamification of Cognitive Training 

Two different protocols of working memory training using an N-back task led to mostly similar improvements and performance on transfer tasks. As expected, participants reported being more engaged and expending more effort in the gamified condition of the N-back task which was designed to have more motivational elements than the non-gamified condition. Participants in the gamified condition showed greater improvements in working memory after four training sessions than did participants in the non-gamified condition.

My Two Cents: This paper harkens back to an early stage of my research career when I was completing an honors thesis on the psychological construct of executive function, which includes working memory, inhibitory control, and switching ability (which is kind of a combination of the other two). Although I focus less on these psychological constructs now, the principles for what makes a good game are relevant citations for me to follow up on when I design my own educational software.

Variation Theory

The authors outlined some tenets of variation theory that inform the selection of examples for instructional purposes. Variation theory recommends a progression of examples that first enable contrast, then generalization and then fusion. What this means is that students need to see non-examples as well as examples to illustrate the important point that a teacher wants them to learn. For example, it is hard to know what defines a triangle until a triangle is contrasted with a square or a circle. Then after seeing several examples of triangles being contrasted with other things, you learn each of the properties that makes a triangle special. Combining all of these triangle properties helps you understand the concept of a triangle. In the rest of the paper, the authors detail what is made possible to be learned (different from what is actually taught and what from students learn from a lesson) through a teachers’ selection of examples and tasks in two different lessons on solving equations.


My Two Cents: This is where my breakthrough started to materialize even though the paper was still very much focused on in-classroom learning. Variation theory is basically what all of my ideas about why comparisons are important boils down to and I have yet to see it explicitly implemented in educational technology.

On top of giving a very applied explanation of how variation theory might be used to plan a lesson, this article happened to be in a special issue that includes other articles I was excited about: applying principles of cognitive psychology to teaching. Even though the other articles in the special issue barely mentioned variation theory, they all seemed to fundamentally depend on these ideas.

Example-based learning, self-explanation and comparison

Example-based learning is the idea of providing students with a set of examples that helps them develop the common procedural or conceptual thread between them. Different from traditional math instruction in which a teacher demonstrates solving several math problems in the same way, example-based instruction would be more akin to a student looking over the worked out examples and the explanations for each step in a textbook. In his article on example-based learning, Renkl made the case that this technique is most effective when students engage in self-explanation while they are studying the worked examples, especially when students are new to the material.

Self-explanation was a separate technique further outlined in another article by Rittle-Johnson, Loehr & Durkin (2017). In contrast to a common practice in several math classrooms in which the teacher has the main responsibility for explaining the reason for a problem-solving step or the principle that two problems have in common, self-explanation is when students do this work themselves. The greater mental effort expended by the student when self-explaining helps improve retention over hearing someone else explain. However, students need to be trained in how to do high-quality self-explanations. Unfortunately, not much detail was provided on how to do this besides

These two techniques were combined in a chapter on comparisons more broadly. Durkin, Star & Rittle-Johnson (2017) acknowledge that there are several types of comparisons that are beneficial for learning depending on what is being compared and what question is asked. Comparing an incorrect solution with a correct solution (an example of example-based learning) is beneficial but is more beneficial for students with higher prior knowledge who are better able to distinguish the important differences and figure out the reasons why one is correct (self-explanation). For students who are less experienced with material to be taught, it is more helpful to compare the same solution method for multiple problems in order for them to gain confidence with one method before introducing them to alternative methods for solving similar problems.

My Two Cents: I see each of these techniques relying on variation theory. In order to have effective example-based learning, examples that highlight different and similar features need to be carefully selected. Prompting students to make comparisons helps draw attention to these differences and similarities as well as encourages them to explain their reasoning for why these differences and similarities exist.

Which principle is most relevant to your teaching and learning experiences?


Durkin, K., Star, J. R., & Rittle-Johnson, B. (2017). Using comparison of multiple strategies in the mathematics classroom: Lessons learned and next steps. ZDM, 1-13.

Kullberg, A., Kempe, U. R., & Marton, F. (2017). What is made possible to learn when using the variation theory of learning in teaching mathematics?. ZDM, 1-11.

Mohammed, S., Flores, L., Deveau, J., Hoffing, R. C., Phung, C., Parlett, C. M., … & Zordan, V. (2017). The benefits and challenges of implementing motivational features to boost cognitive training outcome. Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, 1-17.

Renkl, A. (2017). Learning from worked-examples in mathematics: students relate procedures to principles. ZDM, 1-14.

Rittle-Johnson, B., Loehr, A. M., & Durkin, K. (2017). Promoting self-explanation to improve mathematics learning: A meta-analysis and instructional design principles. ZDM, 1-13.


Disney Tips · Disney Trips · Listicles · Science of Disney · Uncategorized

Top 5 Educational Experiences at Epcot

Although Walt Disney’s original vision for Epcot is far from realized, the spirit of showcasing technological innovations and providing memorable and educational experiences for guests lives on!

  1. Living with the Land – This ride is very long but really interesting. I never thought I would care about agriculture but finding out that Disney produces as much of its produce on-site as possible was really impressive! Seeing real scientists at work monitoring the plants and animals and their growing conditions in the most magical place on earth is bound to be inspiring for aspiring scientists, young and old. They offer a Behind the Seeds tour as well if you want more information about the work going on behind the scenes to feed hundreds of thousands of guests each day.
  2. The Seas Pavilion – Despite growing up a short drive from the Monterey Bay Aquarium (one of the main inspirations for Finding Dory’s Marine Life Institute), I had never seen manatees before and they are equally adorable and imposing due to their size and agility in the water. The large aquariums are full of several creatures and have TV screens that flash their names which makes this a great spot to cool off from the Florida heat by playing a game of I Spy with the kiddos. The sea turtles are usually pretty hard to spot because they like to hide! Each smaller aquarium also has short and sweet descriptions about the unique behaviors of the sea life within.
  3. Stave Church Replica and Museum in  Norway – Because the Norway pavilion has been overtaken by Frozen to a great extent, this museum is a nice way of tying together the movie and actual Norwegian culture. You can learn about all the inspiration for the film from the Norwegian landscape and traditional outfits, to how the instruments and vehicles are typically made and used.
  4. Oh Canada! – Even though I have been to Vancouver once before, this film taught me so much about Canada and made me want to visit again as soon as possible. The range of lifestyles represented – from small fishing villages to bustling, artistic city centers – and the sheer wonder of the various natural landscapes were absolutely fascinating, especially when presented in 360 degrees accompanied by Martin Short’s humor.
  5. Venetian Mask Shop – Besides showcasing the beauty and craftsmanship of what must be hundreds of masks, this little shop attached to the perfumery could have entertained me for hours due to what can be learned about Italian folklore. Ask the shopkeeper questions about your favorite masks and about the variety of designs; each one has its own meaning and story about the process of creating it. I may be biased because I read as many fictional books set in Venice as I could when I was in middle school but this really is a gem worth perusing when you’re still full on pizza and wine from Via Napoli.

Honorable Mention

Exhibits in Mexico

When I was last in Epcot in September, they were preparing for the promotional but potentially educational exhibit on Coco and Día de Muertos. I will have to check out the newly decorated area on my next trip to see if it is faithful to the culture, whether it teaches me anything different from my Spanish classes in school, and how it integrates aspects of the film. If it is anything close to the museum in Norway, it could be promising but perhaps difficult for kids who can’t read yet to be thoroughly entertained.


To replace Innoventions, the Imagineers decided an interactive science show would do the trick while also probably being less expensive to maintain and easier to potentially overhaul for the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney World. One of my top priorities for my next trip is checking out how engaging (and hopefully not cringe-worthy) this show is; maybe what some people see as cringe-worth is really just a good use of Jungle Cruise style humor to demonstrate cool science phenomena. I’m hopeful that this will be a memorable experience because it is co-sponsored by Science from Scientists which is a non-profit organization working to improve STEM literacy in schools.

What is your favorite educational experience at Epcot?

Listicles · PhD Life · Princess Life · Uncategorized

If Princesses were PhD Students Part 2

Some of the best and most interesting Disney characters to me are the unofficial Disney princesses. What would these nine fearless females choose to study in graduate school?

Megara – Media and Communication.

She seemed to be quite confident in giving Hercules advice about how to adjust his public image. Becoming an expert in how rhetoric manifests in various mediums both ancient and modern would be quite lucrative for this dame; she could use these skills to develop her own media consulting company for all of the big stars or start her own magazine that would rival Cosmo with bitingly witty pieces on sandals, weak ankles, togas and how to become equals with any man despite how godly they might seem to the general populace.

Jane – Evolutionary Anthropology.

This likely descendant of Belle shares the bookworm’s affinity for beastly creatures as demonstrated by her fondness for gorillas, chimpanzees and of course Tarzan. Living in the jungle for so many years would make her one of the most qualified candidates to be a leading researcher of apes, so I expect that she would apply to the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. I’m sure she’d leverage her strong bonds with the bands of gorillas to study their behavior and communication very intimately and become a well-published expert as long as the animals don’t trash her camp repeatedly.

Anna – Art History.

During the time that Anna spent in the halls of Arendelle’s castle growing up, she seemed to deeply appreciate (and talk extensively to) the paintings lining the walls. Studying art history would give Anna the skills to preserve the works of art as well as learn more about the customs of Arendelle that she can no longer remember. As a result of her studies, she likely would not stop talking about the rich artistic traditions of Scandinavia, which Kristoff would happily endure and perhaps even contribute to himself.

Elsa (yes, she’s technically a queen) – Civil Engineering.

She already seems to know a lot about building with ice so she’d probably revolutionize the field of civil engineering by using her expertise of ice’s properties as well its advantages and disadvantages to design structures in regions other than Arendelle. Elsa would also shatter some glass ceilings as she rise in the ranks of the male-dominated field. I would just feel really sorry for Elsa networking at conferences because everyone would come up to her “wanting to break the ice” which would probably get old very quickly. On a positive note, her several years in solitude have prepared her well for hours writing papers alone.

Nala – Marriage and Family Therapy.

Where would the animal kingdom be if not for Nala’s amazing skills at helping Simba confront his past and his own greatest fears? Once the famine of Scar’s years as king subsides, Nala would be better able to serve the kingdom if she could receive additional training to hone her skills at negotiation. I’m sure there’s way more drama in the pride than is shown in the movie and she would be just the lion to help resolve any conflicts.

Kida – Religious Studies.

Like Moana, the mythology of her people would spark a need to know more about why people believe what they believe. Learning about Mesoamerican and Southeast Asian religious practices would only be the launching point for writing a thesis on Atlantean beliefs and customs. Several of her people would follow in her footsteps to share and develop more expertise about the unique Atlantean architectural styles and functioning of crystals.

Vanellope von Schweetz – Computer Science.

Having been erased from the code of her own game, this spunky gal would go to school to ensure that none of the citizens of Sugar Rush face the same fate as she did. Understanding the intricacies of several programming languages and how videogames store their data could make her the heroine of the whole arcade if it were ever in danger again as well as make her much more adept at navigating the Internet (Wreck-It Ralph 2 *hint hint*). Furthermore, gaining expertise in computer science could also help her make faster and more environmentally friendly electric racing cars; who’s to say that even a gingerbread car couldn’t run on electricity?

Atta – Biology.

As such a broad field, biology would be best suited for Atta’s need to know about ecosystems, agriculture, animal (or insect) behavior as well as environmental policy in order to be an informed leader of her colony. Knowing more about photosynthesis and the nutrients and farming practices that would best support high, continuous crop yield would ensure that she would rarely have difficulty feeding all of her “subjects” and maybe even feed some grasshoppers in the mean time. She might have to improve upon her skills at standing up for herself in the field but standing up to Hopper would definitely make for a good personal statement.

Dot – Mechanical Engineering.

With Flik and Atta as role models, Dot will have witnessed dramatic revolutions in how her colony harvests food by the time she would be prepared for a PhD program. Her experiences with birds (both real and constructed) would likely have piqued her fascination with machines, especially flying ones. Thus, studying how things move would enable this princess to improve the harvesting machines and potentially lead the growing colony off the island either by riding the streams from rainstorms or via air travel.

Read Part 1 here!

Which characters would you like me to do next?