Computational Thinking is the Star of The Science Behind Pixar

| Ioannis Miaoulis, PhD

Since I was in Kindergarten, I have been visiting the Museum of Science in Boston.  Now I am so proud to bring my own sons to the museum. I love that they know exactly where to find the chicks and the bees in the Hall of Human Life as well as the see-saws and giant pulleys in the Science in the Park exhibit. 

As an adult, I continue to learn at the Museum. The Museum has taught me about the key role that museums, and other informal education organizations, play in inspiring the next generation of scientists and technologists.  At Microsoft, we are focused on making sure all students have access to computer science education and are inspired to pursue STEM related careers. In the new Science Behind Pixar exhibit, I’m certain we will inspire the next generation of computer scientists.  While we all loved watching Cars, Toy Story and Inside Out, this exhibit shows students that they can be more than just movie watchers, they can create them

Ioannis Miaoulis, President of the Museum of Science, recently shared his thoughts on this groundbreaking new exhibit in the blog below.  I hope all of you will make time to experience the Science Behind Pixar this summer or Fall! ~Aimee Sprung, Civic Engagement Manager – Microsoft New England and Member of the Board of Overseers, Museum of Science

©Eric Workman/TMP Images

On June 28, the Museum of Science hosted the world premiere of The Science Behind Pixar, a state-of-the-art exhibition that gives visitors a behind-the-scenes look at how—as animator John Lasseter puts it—“art challenges technology and technology inspires art” at Pixar Animation Studios.

The exhibition brings the Pixar production pipeline to life—from storyboard and concept art all the way to a final rendered frame. Throughout the exhibition, visitors can engage in hands-on, screen-based, and physical activities that let them explore the computational thinking skills integral to the Pixar process. Visitors can explore the creativity and artistry of Pixar filmmakers, and learn how computers are used as a filmmaking tool. In this exhibition, students and adults will learn about the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) skills needed in the 21st century workforce.

The exhibition is organized into eight sections, each focusing on a step of the filmmaking process – Modeling, Rigging, Surfaces, Sets & Cameras, Animation, Simulation, Lighting, and Rendering. With more than 40 interactive exhibit elements, The Science Behind Pixar balances the fun-factor with STEM lessons tied to Common Core standards for math, American Association for the Advancement of Science benchmarks for science literacy, the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ 21st Century Skills, and computer science standards from the Computer Science Teachers Association. Visitors can see the computational thinking skills that go into every part of the process, as they try their hand at 3-D modeling, set design, and character animation.

The Museum has been working in collaboration with Pixar on this exhibition for five years—including research, design, and two rounds of iterative prototyping in our Exhibit Halls that yielded feedback from over 3,000 visitors. The opportunity to collaborate with the artists and computer scientists at Pixar has been a great experience for our institution. What made the collaboration work so well is the fact that Pixar and the Museum of Science share a similar culture: We both value the roles interdisciplinary teams and iterative design play in the creative process.

Our initial plans called for a 5,000-square-foot exhibition. But that wasn’t big enough. We needed a bigger platform to show how computational thinking must become an essential part of the way schoolchildren learn how to breakdown complex problems into smaller steps, how to handle data, and how to test the design of their solutions. So we doubled the size of the exhibition to 10,000-square-feet.

In many ways, our collaboration with Pixar reminds me of the Museum’s partnership with Lucasfilm Ltd. To create the production of Star Wars®: Where Science Meets Imagination. That exhibition premiered in Boston in 2005, and concluded its 20 venue, eight-year international tour in 2014, after reaching more than 3 million visitors worldwide. My feeling is that The Science Behind Pixar will deliver the message on computational thinking in much the same way our Star Wars exhibition introduced concepts on engineering and design.

When the inaugural run of The Science Behind Pixar ends at the Museum of Science on January 10, 2016, the exhibition will begin a national tour. It’s booked for the next five years, first traveling to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, followed by the California Science Center, Science Museum of Minnesota, Oregon Museum of Science and Industry as well as other venues.

Ioannis Miaoulis is the president and director of the Museum of Science, Boston. In addition to engaging people in science, he leads a worldwide effort to integrate engineering in schools and museums.

On Support For Exhibition

For their support of The Science Behind Pixar, the Museum of Science would like to acknowledge Nonnie and Rick Burnes, Google, the Haley Family Foundation, Institute of Museum and Library Services, Kurt and Therese Melden, National Science Foundation, Elizabeth G. Riley and Daniel E. Smith, Jr., and the Science Museum Exhibit Collaborative.

Microsoft is the local sponsor of The Science Behind Pixar.

Making Sets
©Ashley McCabe

“The purpose of the exhibit is to show people the tremendous amount of creative math, physics, perceptual understanding, and a whole gamut of scientific issues that are part and parcel of what it takes to make our films. And if we’ve done a good job, the audience never even thinks about it. What we are trying to do is celebrate the science and make it accessible to everyone. These scientists and mathematicians are an integral part of what we’re doing. Not just because they’re providing tools, but because they’re stimulating the storytellers and the artists.”

Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios

©Michael Malysko

“We at NSF recognize the importance of computational thinking, which involves solving problems, designing systems, and understanding human behavior by drawing on concepts fundamental to computer science. These skills are valued across a wide range of disciplines, and efforts to cultivate computational thinking are critical. The Science Behind Pixar provides an engaging, research-based means to do so across a range of learners. A NSF-grant to Clara Cahill, a research associate here at the Museum of Science, has helped to ensure that.”

James Kurose, Assistant Director for Computer Science and Engineering, National Science Foundation

©Michael Malysko

“We in the Directorate for Education and Human Resources at NSF are always pleased to see new and innovative approaches to enhancing interest and engaging the public in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—or STEM—fields.”

Joan Ferrini-Mundy, Assistant Director for Education and Human Resources, National Science Foundation

Ioannis Miaoulis, PhD is President and Director of the Museum of Science, Boston. To learn more about the Museum of Science visit this link.

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