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Pixar in a Box - Putting the Wonder Back in Math

by Bill Gowsell


Why do I need to learn this? If you have taught a math class, then you have no doubt heard this question multiple times. There is a hyper focus on math excellence around the world, and the common response from students when having trouble in the subject is “It’s too hard” or “I don’t get it.” I have looked for ways to demonstrate to my students how the math they learn is applicable in real life. Sometimes it is easy, sometimes it is next to impossible. Then I discovered Pixar in a Box.

Pixar Animation Studios, part of the Walt Disney Company, has partnered with Khan Academy to create a unique, free program for students between grades 5 and 12 that demonstrates how math, science and art is used in the filmmaking process at Pixar. As I began to explore the site, I was astounded by the many short videos that explain to the students the different math concepts applied in the filmmaking process, as well as the interactive activities that are available for students to try. The many hours I spent on my own time exploring and trying the activities had me hooked. I now had a real-world connection that I could regularly use to explain to my grade 6 students how the math they learned was being used for to make their favourite movies.

In the past two years, I have had the chance to use multiple lessons from Pixar in a Box with students in grade 6, 7 and 8. It was my recent work using the Animation lessons that really opened my eyes to the multiple avenues of learning in math that students and teachers can access through Pixar in a Box.

A comprehensive lesson guide is provided online that shows what lessons are appropriate for what grades. The lessons are broken up based on the following categories: Simulation, Colour Science, Virtual Cameras, Effects, Patterns, Rigging, Animation, Environment Modeling, Character Modeling, Crowds, Sets & Staging and Rendering. At the beginning of each lesson there is an introductory video that explains the concept and then asks the students to work on interactive activities that relate to what they have seen. At the end of each unit, there are extension activities that teachers can use to assess the students’ understanding and comprehension of what they have studied.

I started the Animation section by showing the preview videos that explain the complex problems and mathematical process of animating characters in movies. The videos were very helpful and one of the tasks that was provided for the students was to animate the Luxo Ball, a character from an early Pixar cartoon short.

Students are asked to place the ball in certain spots through the frame and once they are finished framing the shot, they are asked to click “play” to watch the ball as it bounces along in the scene based on their work.

Our class had great discussions using math dialogue throughout the lessons. The students embraced the use of Pixar in a Box from the first moment I introduced it. They were interested in how math and science and art helped make the movies, but they also showed me that math class can be a place to discuss empathy and mental wellness. When I asked a student to explain what she did with her animation, and how she did it, the student started talking about the emotional health of the ball in her scene. “I think it’s sad, because when I animated it to drop, it has no emotion to it. It just kind of falls down.” I was stunned to think that not only had this student completed the task, but that she could connect with the animated object by identifying the feelings of the bouncing ball.

As an extension activity, the students met with me at recess to complete a hand drawn animation story using sticky notes. Students had to draw the Luxo Ball, Luxo Lamp, and a rocket from Pixar cartoons on the different pages of the sticky notes. As we flipped through the sticky notes, how well the students used their math skills in drawing the objects as well as the consistency of the location would decide how well their hand drawn animated sequence would work. This activity was a big success, as students met with me for three consecutive days at recess to complete this task.

Today it seems like the headlines are dominated by high test scores and falling test scores in math, and the pressure to perform at an international level. Curriculum and standardized test priorities for math have caused multiple levels of stress for students and teachers. We need to take some time to explore what allows us to apply the knowledge we have learned. Students need an opportunity to have fun and explore a subject as complex as math from multiple angles.

Some of the many things that make Pixar in a Box an incredible resource are that it is free, it regularly updates with new lessons, if students and teachers have a question they can post a question that is usually answered promptly online. Teachers can use Pixar in a Box to help students develop their cognitive reasoning, memory skills, visual processing, and organization and planning skills. These skills are all needed to support in-depth math learning.

Sometimes it is hard to let go of the comfort of a textbook, but we must remember to make student learning meaningful. That might mean stepping out of our comfort level. Pixar in a Box is a fantastic resource, and can be used in many ways. It’s up to you as a teacher to find what works for you and use it. I know I have and I suggest you check out



Bill Gowsell

Bill Gowsell has been a teacher with the Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario for the last ten years, teaching grades 3 to 8. Currently he is teaching grade 3/4 in Gananoque, ON. Since taking his Primary/Junior Specialist in Math, he has come to love the subject for the complexity and challenges posed. He continues to find new and innovative ways to bring the joy of math to his students. At the NCTM conference in San Antonio this April, Bill made a presentation about the Pixar in a Box program with Tony DeRose from Pixar.

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