The Pixar Project

A cross-curricular animation project takes hands-on learning to a new level!

Physics teacher Katelyn Johnson and English teacher Brigitta Engebretsen dreamed about bringing their disciplines together in a cross-curricular project for freshmen. Inspired by the Science Behind Pixar exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry, Katelyn and Brigitta began planning the Pixar Project at Wheaton Academy in 2018. It has only grown since then!

This year, the project kicked off in English classes, where students developed a character, wrote a story, and crafted a storyboard.

In the meantime, in physics classes, students learned to operate CNC machines and 3D printers. They also learned basic JavaScript skills as they prepared to bring their characters to life.

“One of my goals for this project was to bring more female students into our science program and maker space, the IDEA Lab. Traditionally, these spaces have been dominated by male students, but I wanted this project to be an opportunity for young women to feel welcomed and included in science spaces too. It is exciting to see the girls I’ve had in class go on to take engineering and robotics classes because they were so energized by what they learned during their freshman year in the Pixar Project.”

Katelyn Johnson, Science Faculty

Using the skills that they learned in the IDEA Lab, students printed and coded models of each character to pitch to the “Pixar board” back in English classes. This year’s presentations spanned the creative gambit.

High school student presentation

Mateo makes his pitch for a short film about the sun and moon.

High school students use CNC machines and 3D printers to create characters

Characters "Zip" and "Bobbble" were printed on CNC machines in the IDEA Lab.

Brigitta reflects, “Students’ creativity was outstanding this year. Students wrote songs as elevator pitches, designed and coded video games as additional merchandise, made merchandise for each member of the class, had classmates read their scripts to get a feel for the plot, animated trailers, and so much more. It was evident in their presentations that they were combining elements of English, Physics, and persuasive communication.”

After evaluating each pitch, students voted on which stories to produce as stop motion short films.

High school student presentation

Listen to Caedmon’s musical pitch starring “Charlie the Paperclip.”

In previous years, this project culminated in a field trip to the Museum of Science and Industry. This year, COVID-19 restrictions pushed Brigitta and Katelyn to new levels of creativity and innovation. Together, they organized and facilitated an on-campus field trip for the entire freshman class.

On the day of the field trip, teams of students rotated through stations where they modeled characters out of clay, created backdrops, and recorded the audio for their shorts. 

Students create characters out of clay for short film animation

During the freshmen field trip, students model characters out of clay.

Students draw backdrops for their stop motion short films

At another station, students create backdrops for their short films.

In the afternoon, students staged stop motion footage and began assembling their films. Take a look at a few of their final shorts!

Katelyn shares, “My goal as a teacher isn’t just that students get an A on a test. I want to help them discover something that they are passionate about that they will use later in life. I love hearing students talk about pursuing a career in animation, film-making, or coding because of their experience with this project.”

Brigitta adds, “It can be hard to convince a 14-year-old that vectors and comma splices are important for their future, but with a project like this they begin to understand: while it may seem like English and Physics are worlds apart, they are seamlessly intertwined in many areas of the professional world.”

The Pixar Project is just one example of Wheaton Academy’s innovative, cross-curricular approach to learning. As students grow up in a culture and workspace where skills and disciplines are not clearly compartmentalized, Wheaton Academy believes it is important for students to understand how disciplines relate to one another.

Katelyn reflects, “Wheaton Academy gives students opportunities to learn in cross-disciplinary spaces outside of traditional curriculum structures—I believe that this is true education.