PBL | Viewpoint

Dreaming Up an Easy, Disney-inspired STEM Lesson

One FETC presenter details his very popular "Design a Disney World Theme Park" workshop, which teaches collaboration, creativity, and STEM concepts.

Where did the time go? Four years ago, I retired from the Durango School District in Durango, CO. The phone started ringing off the hook with requests for conferences, presentations, and school district workshops on the "latest and greatest" in educational technology. The past four years have been an exciting adventure, during which I have visited more than 30 conferences and school districts each year.

I recently returned from a 10-day tour that took me to three conferences in three states, and I have had some time to reflect on my observations on the changes in educational technology. My tours included keynote and feature presentations, workshops, and professional development classes that I provide to conferences, teachers, administrators, and technology coaches.

The importance of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is a popular topic at conferences. STEM is something you can do only with educational technology. It is not a remix of online classes or a "drill and kill" vendor exercise program. Nor is it an off-line lecture series of YouTube videos.

Attending one of my workshops will challenge you to think differently, and apply that to real-world problems. My most popular workshop is titled "Design a Disney World Theme Park Attraction." The workshop allows participants to experience engagement in STEM, utilizing the following skills:

  • Creativity
  • Critical thinking
  • Problem solving
  • Collaboration
  • Information literacy
  • Teamwork
  • Communication
  • Presentation

My workshops provide opportunities to connect with many teachers who "do projects." When they describe their "PBL design," I discover that not all projects lead to learning. My goal in the workshop is to make sure they leave with methods and designs to use project-based learning effectively with their students (rather than simply "do projects").

In the "Design a Disney World Theme Park Attraction" workshop I make sure that: 

  1. Projects meet today’s standards for accountability,
  2. I teach students the academic content and the 21st century skills they need for life success, and
  3. I apply science, technology, engineering, and math to the concepts.

Follow along with me as we drop in and see what it is like to experience the workshop:

Objective:  Build a new attraction at a "Disney World" Resort Park.

Disney hires a team that includes a cross-section of wildly different disciplines in order to handle the construction of a new attraction/ride. These people are called "imagineers," a word that combines engineers and imagination.

Here is what workshop participants are told about their project:

1. Organizing a Team
You have been chosen as the leader of your team and must take them through the following stages:

2.  Blue Sky
"Blue Sky" is the name that imagineers give to the theoretical planning process--the bouncing around of ideas about how to design, why to design, and what to design. It is the idea stage of imagineering.

3.  Design
Design is the next stage of the process, and possibly the lengthiest because it involves exceptionally detailed and technical planning. This is where the "engineer" part of "imagineering" really comes into play. Computer and 3D models are constructed to make the ride move from idea to reality.

4.  Storytelling
The ride then moves on to the storytelling phase. Unlike most theme parks, Disney prides itself on telling stories throughout its entire enterprise. The theme parks are no exception. This can also encompass or lead into a research and development phase.

5.  Engineering and Effects
The engineering team then takes the models and story and makes it all into a physical reality, building the ride and designing the lighting, sound, and special effects.

6.  Testing and Closeout
From there the ride is extensively tested and checked from every point, angle, location, and experience. Once the testing is satisfied, it's time for closeout, where everything is finalized and the imagineers move on to their next project.

Join us next time and continue on the journey. Before then, do a little research:

  • How many Disney parks are located around the world?
  • Name five theme areas at the parks.
  • What does it mean to "PLUS " the ride?
  • What is "the art of the show?"
  • Who are three notable Disney imaginers?

Now, start your "Blue Sky" dreaming!

About the Author

Howie DiBlasi is a speaker and authority on educational technology. His workshop on designing a Disney World theme park attraction will be offered at the 2012 annual International Society for Technology in Education conference in San Diego.