Rutgers STEAM club hosts discussion with Pixar, Khan Academy representatives

Pixar in a Box aims to explain the relevance of school subjects that students see no use in studying.

On March 24, the Rutgers STEAM club hosted a live video conference to discuss Pixar in a Box with Tony DeRose, lead of the Research Group at Pixar Animation Studios, and Brit Cruise, a faculty member at Khan Academy.

Launched in 2015, Pixar in a Box merges Pixar Animation Studios with Khan Academy to explore how math and science tie into animation.

“What we want to do is help middle school and high school kids answer that age old question: When am I ever going to need this stuff?” DeRose said.

At first glance, the relevance of school subjects to real-life situations is not always straightforward, he said. Students may lose interest in topics when they cannot personally relate to them or apply them to their interests.

Pixar in a Box aims to inspire motivation for learning by fusing artistry and imagination with education. Students can become content creators while also mastering topics that they are currently studying in school.

“Here is a project where we can expose really authentic connections between class and the real world,” Cruise said. “We’re not talking about made-up problems or puzzles. These are stories we’re telling about how people work, which are also directly connected to academic concepts.”

These academic concepts include physics, which helped animate Merida’s fiery curls in "Brave" or the lighting and shadowing with Luxo Jr., the famous opening animation to any Pixar movie, he said.

Computer science helps program characters to move a certain way and adds facial expressions, he said, which was particularly innovative in "Toy Story."

While artists contribute to character and scene designs, DeRose said balancing artistic integrity with physical reality may pose challenges for animators.

Pixar often consults scientific experts during film development, such as for "Monsters, Inc.," when he said research on animal anatomy was necessary to create Sulley, the big, blue, purple-polka-dotted monster.

Pixar in a Box offers many interactive elements to encourage the development of artistic skills while ensuring understanding of concepts and promoting critical thinking, Cruise said. The first half of each lesson presents an artistic design challenge while the second half covers the mathematics and software used.

“Our goal here is to start in the real-world with the software being used, and then really strip it down to (its) core features … focusing on animation curves, which (play) a role in any software you use and (exploring) the algebra going on behind the scenes,” Cruise said.

For example, a branch of mathematics called combinatorics derives various combinations from a set of criteria. This played a role in "WALL-E" by producing different combinations of robot parts to create a diverse array of robots in a crowd, DeRose said.

“The lesson starts with a problem at Pixar, but it ends with algebraic work problems, which are in the domain of every classroom,” Cruise said. “(The lesson) is not only relevant in teaching about Pixar and how things work there, but we’re hitting a whole bunch of standards that we know students have to do at school.”

Danica Sapit, president of the STEAM club and a School of Engineering junior, hoped students who attended the Q&A session would draw meaningful relationships between course curriculum and career possibilities.

She hopes the event showed the opportunities for math and science to strengthen the creative process.

“I realize that science is not really restricted to the technical stuff. There’s so much more that you can do with it,” said Samvitha Cherravuru, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences junior. “It’s good that Pixar and Khan Academy have these projects so people learn about these opportunities.”

Ciera Jones, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, said she liked how Pixar offers a wide variety of opportunities beyond film and animation, such as contributions in theater, art, physics and other sciences.

Animating certain objects like water probably involves a large amount of physics, said Brian Ronan, a School of Engineering sophomore.

Pixar’s goal is not to make it as realistic as possible, he said. They have a particular animation style and models that have to remain consistent, he said.

“Students may not be aware that these opportunities are out there,” Sapit said. “It makes sense for people to see where intersections (between fields) lie and the beauty of each — all the different ways they can consolidate to make your own path in the world.”

Allison Bautista is a School of Nursing junior. She is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum. Follow her on Twitter @allisontargum for more.

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