Pixar wants you to take more math classes: An interview with Tony DeRose
This post is part of a week-long STEM Matters series. Thought-leaders, social innovators, and experts from around the country are sharing how and why science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are critical to our abilities to solve complex problems across a wide range of fields, from climate change, medicine, economic development, space exploration, to the movies!
Pixar Animation Studios has given audiences a roster of unforgettable heroes: Woody and Buzz, Nemo and Marlin, Mr. and Mrs. Incredible … and Tony DeRose.
He may not be a household name, but DeRose has proven himself time and time again to be an integral ingredient of Pixar’s success. The animated characters created by arguably the most cutting-edge and critically acclaimed cinematic dream factory wouldn't be possible without his contributions.
A former educator, DeRose is a senior scientist at Pixar, where he’s head of the research group responsible for much of the technology behind Oscar-winning films like Geri's Game and Ratatouille. DeRose earned his bachelor of science in physics in from the University of California Davis, and a doctorate in computer science from the University of California Berkeley.
From 1986 to 1995, DeRose was a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington. Then the Emeryville-based Pixar, which had vaulted onto the movie scene in a major way, brought him on the team to make their digitally-simulated environments more "real."
A longtime advocate of STEM education, DeRose spoke with Ashoka Changemakers® about how science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) have taken his passion, profession, classroom, and movie audiences to infinity and beyond. (Sorry, we had to go there — can you blame us?)
Changemakers: You are a major proponent of STEM education because it is used in ways people wouldn't necessarily immediately think of. How does it apply to your work?
DeRose: One of the things that is exciting here is that there certainly is a lot of STEM going on, and there's also a lot of art. And we bring them together and really make steam. What's exciting at Pixar is that we encourage exercising both sides of the brain.
Changemakers: What inspired you to pursue science and math when you were a child?
DeRose: I think it was the space program. My formative years were in the ‘60s, when NASA and the Apollo program were really in their heyday. Those astronauts made math and science cool. And I'm not alone; so many people of my generation were inspired by the space program.
That was the real innovation. It wasn't Velcro or any of that stuff. As a technologist here at Pixar, and as a father and an educator, it looks like we're in danger of squandering the next generation of scientists. I think that's in part because they don't have a defining grand challenge, like the space program, to look to.
But Pixar has had an impact; it carries a certain cache among children, particularly among middle school kids. I got interested in how Disney and Pixar can use our storytelling ability, and our focus on creativity and inspiration to help bring some of those qualities to STEM education.
I think by the time it gets to the classroom, it loses some of the impact. It's drier; it feels less relevant. Of course, the reality couldn't be farther from the truth. That's where you find the applications that are all over the place and are relevant for kids.
Changemakers: What are the challenges in making it applicable?
DeRose: I think the problem is multifaceted. I don't claim to be an expert on where the disconnect occurs. But for one example, let's take math.
In a number of studies, it's been discovered that a lot of instructors aren't generally as confident in their own mathematical abilities. So they tend to emphasize materials that are more easily delivered, that aren't inquiry-based.
There are a few programs that are trying to address that—to make math teachers think more like mathematicians, such as doing group problem solving—bringing that dynamic to the classroom. The other thing is to try to emphasize the more open-ended, hypothesis-testing, pattern-matching, problem-solving skills—exercising the parts of your brain that are less about rote information.
Changemakers: Do you believe education is our new "Sputnik moment"?
DeRose: I've been thinking about this. A lot of people are. And it may not be one of those Kennedy-esque answers. It isn't as "out there," as maybe it was with regard to something like the space race.
It may be something that's forced upon us, like climate change. If the ice shelf slides off Greenland, we're going to be in a world of hurt. Education may have to get to that kind of crisis before everybody mobilizes.
Changemakers: You were an educator before you worked at Pixar. What prompted the transition to your new role?
DeRose: I loved seeing the light bulb go on, on kids' faces. I loved taking something complicated and translating it into something tangible and exciting for them. I think every teacher wants that "Aha!" moment.
I'm bringing STEM thinking to what we're doing at Pixar because it was the right thing to do—to help develop the next generation of students in a new way. Pixar wants to be around for a long time; it's in our selfish best interest to foster the great minds of tomorrow; to inspire them to do what we're doing here and beyond.
It's not enough to teach the techniques we're using today.
Changemakers: Why not?
DeRose: We don't really know what the world is going to look like, even in 2020. So we can’t pretend that we know what technology is going to be around—most of it has yet to be invented. And they're going to be the ones inventing it.
I think we need to train the next generation to be creative problem solvers and, maybe most importantly, to give them the skills necessary to be self-learners. We don't need to create the passion—it's there. We just need to help develop it.
Changemakers: One of your primary directives is to make STEM cool. How is it cool?
DeRose: Speaking for us at Pixar, everything we do has math and science behind it. People don't necessarily appreciate or even understand that. Whether they know it or not, every time they see one of our films, they're getting an entire STEM curriculum through at least college-sophomore level.
Look at Disneyland. Those parks are designed by imagineers who employ physics. But that message isn't out there, so we're trying to expose that.
Another thing is, we are trying to get tangible and physical activity, like shop class, back into kids' lives. We're too focused on digital sometimes. To make possible something that only previously existed in your head is a really powerful concept.
Changemakers: How else can we make STEM more tangible?
DeRose: There's been a lot of talk about this, a lot of chatter, but not necessarily a lot of doing. I'm glad to see that the competition you're putting together is about doing.
Money's always a challenge. But so is getting it out there—the creative juice—to help kids get their hands on something and create; to leverage that inner motivation that they already have, and show them that STEM concepts are the tools that they need to help realize the vision.
There are a lot of bad ways to do that, I'm sure. But there are people and organizations doing it in a lot of good ways.
Changemakers: What's been your "Aha!" moment?
DeRose: One thing I've been excited about here is developing new user interfaces. Like everyone else in the world, we predominantly use a mouse, which is not much more than, say, a chopstick. And we're creating these stunning virtual environments. But we're looking at new techniques, creating displays and tools, something like a giant iPad, which would enable us to manipulate what we've built more easily and tangibly. The research I run is addressing technology problems in advance of future developments, working on the next round of physics simulations, speeding up lighting calculations that create what you see onscreen.
On the education side, my hope is to expose every kid on the planet to being motivated by technology and science, and scaling that up.
Changemakers: Any final thoughts?
DeRose: Something to remember is that in current classrooms, failure is looked at as a bad word. That's not the way the world works. We should be expected to fail and learn from it.
Society is built in the classroom. Society also tends to respond to risk by avoiding it. Well, there's risk everywhere. We need it to learn from it, to assess it, to move forward. Children need to learn risk and failure to understand learning and success and growth.
Parents, too. There are a lot of helicopter parents who tend to shelter their kids from these things. There's a line in Finding Nemo, when Marlin [voiced by Albert Brooks] says to his son, "I will never let anything to happen to you!" And Nemo looks back and responds, "Nothing?"
We've built these disciplinary silos. There's math, chemistry, biology, and physics. It's going deep, but not connecting or making things intuitive. If classrooms are more project-based, children will think more horizontally and move beyond those limitations set before them, blending a little bit of math, a little bit of science, and a little bit of art.
Want to continue the conversation? Join Ashoka Changemakers, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and The Opportunity Equation for a Twitter #SocEntChat on July 20th from 3-5pm EDT to discuss how innovation in STEM education can create a stronger future for our students and our communities. Remember, the deadline for our Partnering for Excellence: Innovations in Science + Technology + Engineering + Math Education competition is August 3rd!
Photo courtesy of Pixar Animation Studios