Pixar in a Box: My New Answer to “What’s this good for?”

Questions like “Why do we need to know this?” or “When am I ever going to use this in real life?” seem to show up every time I put the definition of the derivative on the board in a calculus class or work through the different ways to express a line with some algebra students. We’ve all probably even asked these questions ourselves at various points in our mathematical careers. Every time I try to answer these questions, I give a few quick examples, but I never feel like I’ve really convinced anyone how cool it is.

These conversations are always short, and I have to remind myself that I didn’t fall in love with math because someone told me that I could use it to build bridges or maximize profit. I love math, because I’ve spent time seeing what math can do and doing it myself.

Using combinations to build robots! Photo by Sarah Salmon.

Using combinatorics to build robots on Khan Academy! Photo by Sarah Salmon.

Now, I finally have a better answer. Last August, Khan Academy and Pixar teamed up to release Pixar in a Box!

Pixar in a Box is a compilation of math lessons all about the different parts of animation that go into making a Pixar film. Talk about seeing math in action! Each section lists an appropriate grade level so you can see what level of math is required to understand the material, and there are sections for everyone from “all ages” through high school. As a grad student, even I’m having fun! You can use code to create a character, learn the math behind animating curves, or use combinatorics to create a crowd of robots! This is an awesome way for students to see math being used to create something rad, and they get to try it on their own. NOTE: All Khan Academy content is available for free at www.khanacademy.org.

Some food for thought: I like math because I find it intrinsically interesting, not because it’s used in a wide variety of professions. Will Pixar in a Box help foster an interest in mathematics for the sake of mathematics? I don’t know the answer, but I would argue that more positive exposure to the subject can’t hurt.

Next time I’m asked “who uses math in real life?” I’m going to direct them straight to Pixar in a Box to experience firsthand how math is used in animation. Maybe this doesn’t answer the question, “When will I ever need the definition of a derivative?” but I think that by seeing how animators use elementary, middle, and high school level math, students may start to be convinced that all sorts of professions benefit from mathematics.

Do you have other resources for students to experience mathematics? I’d love to know what they are, so leave a comment below!

About Sarah Salmon

I am a graduate student in mathematics at University of Colorado, Boulder. I earned my B.S. in mathematics at Northern Arizona University in May 2014.
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