Nathan Kahl Managing Director American Society for Engineering Education

STEM at the Theme Park

PostedThursday, November 30, 2017 at 3:17 PM

STEM at the Theme Park

This year Walt Disney World’s Epcot turned 35. With an estimated 10+ million visitors per year, it’s stunning to think of the number of young people who have had incredible informal engineering/science education experiences at the home of “the big golf ball.”

Epcot (originally EPCOT Center) stands for “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow;” it was Walt Disney’s vision for a self-sustaining living/working community for engineers and scientists to develop new technologies and solve the world’s Grand Challenges. Walt had already had huge impacts on the film and vacation industries, and Epcot demonstrated his vision as an urban planner. Sadly, this original plan did not come to fruition after his death in 1966, but the engineering/science theme that was the heart of the idea lives on in the theme park.

My first trip there was in 1986, when I was 12 - I was absolutely blown away by what I experienced! I saw hydroponic growing techniques first-hand. The classic attraction (and sadly, since closed) Horizons gave me a glimpse into technical advances of the future. The Living Seas pavilion allowed me to “descend” into the ocean, looking into the world’s largest saltwater tank at the time, and learn about engineering advancements with regards to deep-water exploration. Spaceship Earth (the aforementioned “golf ball”) took me through a ride across history, explaining how communication technologies have shaped civilization. When the ride vehicle got to the planetarium-like view at the ride’s midpoint, I realized I was looking at the top of the inside of that massive sphere - the engineering behind the ride system stunned me. “We’re at the top of the ball!” I said excitedly to my parents (while my mom, afraid of heights, shushed me). 

I didn’t understand why the neighboring Magic Kingdom had cornered the market on “magic,” because to me, Epcot was where science fiction met reality. I didn’t know the line at the time, but as Arthur C. Clarke once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I can only speculate how many other kids have left Epcot feeling inspired be an engineer or scientist when they grew up. Not to mention how many were determined to be a Disney “Imagineer.”

As an adult Epcot continues to impress and teach me. The first Segway I ever saw – it was still kind of under wraps at this time, in early 2002 - was when I caught a glimpse of two Disney cast members furtively moving one from one building to another. (When I rushed over to them and asked, “Is that a Segway??” they played dumb and whisked it away.) In the “Behind the Seeds” tour guests can see developments in agricultural research. The Innoventions pavilion allows for hands-on interaction with new technological products. This past spring my son and I looked at various pepper plants and he learned about capsaicin. I have taken my daughter, now 24, and my son, 7, to Epcot many times and have seen the same wonder from them that I experienced as a child.

Whether you call it “infotainment” or “edutainment” or informal education, Epcot offers an exposure to STEM concepts at a quality and scale unlike few places on earth. Of course, I recognize this an experience that comes with a pretty steep price tag, and I realize not everyone can get to Epcot. Examples exist on for those seeking close-to-home informal education experiences. There is even a video series called “The Science of Disney Imagineering,” for home use.

So here is to Walt’s original vision and its evolutions over the past 35 years…and to the engineers and scientists today who can trace their career inspiration to a childhood visit to Epcot. Did a childhood vacation inspire your STEM career? Log in and tell us!

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