Geeks, Robots and Drooling STEM Educators

015ce13The other day my wife suggested we take the kids to a movie. I had no idea what we were going to see, but I figured it would be something animated – because elementary school aged kids love cartoons. I relented, mainly because I like butter-smothered movie theater popcorn – but I was in for a different kind of treat.

Big Hero 6, the latest film from Disney, is not only a beautifully crafted feast for the eyes – it also includes some great messages that will have STEM educators drooling. And as a guy who handles communication for a research university – one with a major robotics program – I was in hog heaven.

It’s a story about 14-year old Hiro Hamada, a robot-building science genius. The problem is that he uses his skills to build robots for illegal back-alley bot fights. His older brother, Tadashi, is a student at the local Institute of Technology, where he is developing a marshmallow-like inflatable personal healthcare robot named Baymax.

Tadashi brings Hiro to visit the university’s robotics research lab, where he meets a diverse group of wildly geeky student-researchers working on incredible projects. Hiro soon realizes he wants to attend the school too. He then develops a swarming robot technology that gets him accepted to the robotics research program, which he’d previously disparaged as ‘Nerd School.’

I don’t want to spoil the fun for you, but let’s just say the science-geeks develop the tools they need to become superheroes. They then battle a bad guy backed by an army of telepathically-controlled micro robots. Adventure ensues.

Within the storyline, there are some subtle messages that resonated with me. And I bet anyone working in education or science would have picked up on them too.

1. Science can be fun, exciting and accessible to everyone!

The Sunday morning show we attended was sold-out. I looked around and saw seats packed with little boys AND girls. As the movie played, I couldn’t help thinking that all of them were learning something, even if the messages were a bit subliminal.

The student robotics researchers were a diverse group – in both gender and ethnicity. This broke the traditional stereotype of scientists being older, white and male. These were characters kids could relate to. And they were doing research that was exciting and understandable.

I’d be surprised if a few of the kids in the audience haven’t already started considering robotics research as a career. At the very least, I bet the movie sparked a lot of robot-related conversations between kids and their parents. …that’s what happened to us.

2. College is Awesome!

This film is very effective in convincing kids that a college is a place for exploration, creativity, and fun.

Wait…college students do cool research? And they enjoy it?

Why yes…yes they do!

Check out the beginning of this film review by Tony Hicks in the San JoseMercury News:

At one point during “Big Hero 6,” my 12-year-old whispered to me, “I want to go to college.”

Bingo.

If the film’s only redeeming quality were that it made heroes out of a lab full of college nerds developing mind-bending, spectacular gizmos, it still would be worth taking the kids. That the new Disney film is funny, emotional, imaginative, well-constructed and beautifully animated makes it a no-brainer for families looking to share a great film experience.

3. The Science in the Movie is Real (…well at least some of it is)

Do inflatable robots really exist? They do at Carnegie Mellon University…

Are researchers developing healthcare robots? At Georgia Tech they are…

What about swarming robots, do they exist? They’re working on them…

As if it wasn’t already obvious, I highly recommend this film. If you bring your family to see it this week let me know what you think of it. I’m already anxious to get it on DVD.

So, what did I miss?

I bet there’s a lot more real science in the film beyond what I mention above, and I welcome your help in identifying it. Let me know what you find and I’ll add it to this post. Share your feedback in the comment section of this post.

Some other interesting tidbits about the film (and robots), that grown-ups may find interesting:


Images:

All images from the 2014 Walt Disney Animation Studios’ animated feature film Big Hero 6. (official film website)

(This piece was originally posted to my LinkedIn blog on November 24, 2014)

 

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