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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.

Overview

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!