With a Twitter handle like @ImagineerSTEAM — a reference to the research and development arm of The Walt Disney Company — it’s not a far stretch to say the "House of Mouse" is Brittany Ballou’s go-to for inspiring her students in science, technology, engineering, arts and math.
As the K-5 STEAM teacher at Grange Hall Elementary School in Chesterfield County, Virginia — and a self-described “Disney enthusiast,” Ballou has her classes think about science projects as the company’s "Imagineers" would, whether that assignment is crafting a “Figment”-themed rollercoaster or creating a Switzerland-based eatery for Epcot.
To her, using Disney themes helps spark students' creativity by linking something they love to STEAM.
“The way I approach lessons is very Imagineering-type thinking,” she says. “And design-thinking goes along with Imagineering and all things Disney is about.”
There’s a lot of science that goes into building some of the most exciting theme park experiences in the world, from the physics behind a roller coaster to the engineering behind a water ride that splashes down 50 feet below.
Disney World's 50th Anniversary this year may even provide an avenue for educators to tap into the theme park and its brand when teaching STEAM lessons — potentially even inspiring future Imagineers along the way.
Using the Imagineering process to teach STEAM
Disney aside, Ballou's style of teaching includes what she calls the “Six Cs”: collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking, citizenship and connections.
Into these, she weaves in what she’s coined the “Imagineering Process,” which is meant to mirror the way Imagineers at Disney work when crafting a new ride or experience. Everything is then married to math and science standards.
Through this approach, Ballou has had her youngest students create stop motion videos, while older students have taken on projects that were more open-ended and might involve creating and designing a ride, an eatery or another kind of addition to a Disney park.
To tie into the theme park’s 50th anniversary, Ballou had classes begin some of their assignments in 2020 with the explanation that even Imagineers need plenty of lead time to plan, prepare and build ideas into the real world. In this way, Ballou also hopes to help students see some of the small details that would drive a career in STEAM, such as the length of time it takes to make a project like a theme park attraction come to life.
“It’s my job as an educator to expose kids to as many careers as possible,” she said. “So this helps them know the mindset of how to approach a project, which can be in any setting, not just Disney.”
Learning opportunities at Disney
Students can also get the opportunity to learn from Disney itself through a newly launched Disney Imagination Campus. The program, which will open in 2022, is a four-tract, on-site experience with multiple STEAM-based lessons students can take while visiting Disney World or Disneyland.
The three-hour lessons, designed for grades 3 and up, will include topics like theme park design, physics and Imagineering, and immersive storytelling. And they’re designed so classes can be cross-curricula, allowing students to take them all.
“Imagination is where ideas form, and that drives creativity, which leads to innovation,” says Charles Thomas, director of the Disney Imagination Campus.
Classes will be taught by former teachers and current cast members, who will also work with Walt Disney Imagineers, producers and directors to design the programming. Educators and their students will be able to add these experiences on to a theme park visit.
Designing towers, beds and more
Not every student, educator or school needs to fly to Florida or California to bring some of Disney’s magic into STEAM learning, however.
At J.E. Harrison Education Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Baldwin-Whitehall School District STEAM and Media Specialist Jessica Seidl works with all 900 K-5 students to build bridges between storytelling, science and design — sometimes with a Disney theme. That has included building a tower for Sleeping Beauty or designing a bed for a storybook character.
Projects change depending on the skill level of the children, and that means while 4th-graders might read a fairy tale like the “Three Little Pigs” and design solutions to improve a character’s life, 2nd-graders may build the Disneyland castle by stacking cups.
But all of it starts with a five-step engineering design process Seidl says always begins with identifying the problem.
“Students close their eyes and imagine, then plan it, create it and improve it,” said Seidl. “For example, if something spins, we’ll figure out how to make it spin faster.”
At Wheaton North High School in Illinois, Robert Griegoliet uses projects inspired by many of Disney's brands, including Star Wars, to engage students across grades 9-12. For some of the projects, students in his Imagineering 101 course design water rides that explore the properties of buoyancy, while others construct classroom-sized roller coasters using ball bearings, peg boards and 3D-printed pieces.
The prominence of Cinderella's castle in Disney parks and its iconic outline make it a favorite to focus lessons around — including those centered on projection mapping, in which students learn about light, color theory and optics in order to design a video projection that runs across the side of the structure.
Students have to calculate focal lengths of light, details around sound and distance, and even how to select the appropriate LED lights needed to turn Winnie the Pooh’s body yellow and his shirt red.
To Griegoliet, Disney helps to illustrate the role science and math can play in the real world, even in jobs focused on make-believe. Whether students are learning about the radio wave science behind the Magic Bands that grant park attendees access to attractions or how light and color reflection is at work in Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, they’re engaging in science.
“I could have just given my students some numbers and asked them to solve problems,” he said. “But I wanted to give them something to focus on that, if they do the work, they could decorate a roller coaster for a favorite movie or design a light show for a favorite character. It’s a really great carrot.”