Students Animate Idaho Capitol At 'STEM Matters Day'

Jan 25, 2017

Projects centering on STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — took over the capitol rotunda in Boise Tuesday. From robots launching balls through a hoop to projects engineered out of Legos, the skills of tomorrow were on show by the students of today.

This robot was made by a team of high school students from across the Boise School District (with some guidance from industry professionals). It made the shot every time!
Credit Lacey Daley / Boise State Public Radio

Among the displays at the event, one from the Wilder School District stands out. It focuses on an animation program that brings cartoons to the classroom. Jeff Dillon, superintendent of the Wilder School District and Wilder Elementary principal, explains the appeal to young students.

"They begin to write scripts, they go back and the revise scripts and so, as a teacher, you don't even have to ask them to revise it," Dillon says. "They do it on their own, so it's a great tool for us to engage kids in the writing process, and they enjoy it."

Dillon was something of an early adopter of the Story Maker software. The program allows students to voice, produce and animate academic projects. Targeted to grades as low as second or third all the way up to high school, the software produces something creator Terry Thoren doesn't call cartoons.

"They're called instructional animations, and each lesson has an intention," Thoren says.

Story Maker founder Terry Thoren in front of a student-run animation lesson at the Capitol Building.
Credit Paul Stribling / Boise State Public Radio

Thoren is something of an animation guru. He was the CEO of the company that produced Nickeloden's "Rugrats", as well as the first 65 episodes of "The Simpsons."

Thoren describes each project as a lesson in modeling appropriate behavior, complete with a beginning, middle and end. He says in the beginning, the lessons are simpler and address matters of school readiness, like, 'raise your hand before you speak,' or 'keep your hands to yourself.'

"They're not used like cartoons; they're used as a catalyst to begin discussion," says Thoren.

While the computer program can be used to demonstrate proper behavior to preschool and kindergarten students, it can be something of a leveler for older elementary school students who make presentations with it.

"I might be ridiculed or teased, but if I write that script for an animated character and I voice the character, choose the background, lay music to tell you how I feel and have sounds effects from my pop-up graphics, I've basically created a TED talk with an animated character," says Thoren. "Now I'm cool. Now people will listen to me."

Thoren's claims are fairly lofty. Could an animation software really be that easy? Dani Salinas, a fifth grader at Wilder Elementary, says the program really isn't hard to master.

"So you're animating these characters to do all your moves that you want and you press that button," Salinas instructs. "Over here you can put the song on; you can make his head move. you just move this for his dancing and that's pretty much it."

Fifth grader Dani Salinas and a friend animate a cartoon segment voiced by Morning Edition host Matt Guilhem.
Credit Lacey Daley / Boise State Public Radio

As she explains it didn't take her very long to learn the process, Salinas uses a touchscreen to bring an animation to life. Within seconds she combines aspects of storytelling, computer science and human behavior to demonstrate the software.

By bringing technology into the classroom and focusing on the creative process, Thoren — the Story Maker founder — says his product teaches students valuable 21st century job skills: collaboration, creativity, communication and critical thinking.

Those four C's aren't lost on Wilder Superintendent Jeff Dillon. When students complete a project using the animation software, he says they leave the classroom with confidence.

"It really is a great tool for kids to bring pride back into learning for them."

The Story Maker animation software is currently in classrooms in 16 states. The company expects to be in 20 states by mid-February.

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