Professor Michael Sheehan, new class at Cornell, BIONB 1100, "Understanding Animal Behavior through Animated Films". In Carson-Mudd Hall

Cartoons in the Curriculum: Teaching Science through Animation

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By Melissa Newcomb

It’s the last class session of the spring 2024 semester for BIONB 1100—time for students to share their final presentations. One after another, their animations, drawings, and photographs appear onscreen: birds solving a murder mystery; lizards going on a desert adventure; an octopus on a crime spree.

These cartoonish scenes may not be what you envision when you think of a college-level class on neurobiology and behavior. But they’re the culmination of a unique course that has proved wildly popular in the two years that it has been taught on the Hill: its 60 spaces filled up within minutes of enrollment opening for 2024, and capacity will increase to 300 next year.

“This is the most interesting class I’ve ever taken,” raves bio major Erin Brown ’24. “I’ve learned so much.”

Professor Michael Sheehan, new class at Cornell, BIONB 1100, "Understanding Animal Behavior through Animated Films". In Carson-Mudd Hall
The class covers such topics as language, social structure, cognition, and sensory perception.

Titled Natural History of the Magic Kingdom: Understanding Animal Behavior through Animated Films, the course explores its subject matter not through textbooks, but via such movies as A Bug’s LifeBambi, Ice AgeChicken RunCharlotte’s WebFantastic Mr. Fox, The Great Mouse Detective, and The Land Before Time

Michael Sheehan, an associate professor of neurobiology and behavior, uses the films’ portrayals of animals to spark discussions not only about their behavior, but how the creatures differ from humans, why animated films depict animals in certain ways, and how those depictions depart from reality.

This is the most interesting class I’ve ever taken. I’ve learned so much.

Erin Brown ’24

“While the class is about animal biology and behavior through the lens of film,” says Sheehan, who was inspired to create the course by watching movies with his young son, “it’s really about how we choose to portray ourselves, as acted out by animals.”

For instance, he says, animators might give an animal round eyes to make it seem more friendly, add eyebrows to create humanlike facial expressions, or have it walk on two legs instead of four.

Films often also veer away from real-life biology and behavior to fit the storyline. Since clownfish can change sex when their mate dies, for example, Finding Nemo would have been less likely to be about a bereaved dad looking for his lost son than about a newly female fish in search of a male.

Students smiling in class
Students view their peers' final presentations.

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“From a human perspective, you totally understand that Scar in The Lion King is being pushed aside from the throne,” Sheehan adds, referencing the Disney hit loosely based on Hamlet. “But that’s not how lion society works at all.”

One in-class exercise riffed off the film Zootopia, about a metropolis of various critters who try to live together peacefully, despite their differences.

Students were each assigned an animal—such as a polar bear, rabbit, or kangaroo—and participated in a town hall where they were tasked with finding solutions to city issues while advocating for their species’ needs.

This class is really about how we choose to portray ourselves, as acted out by animals.

Prof. Michael Sheehan

How should the noise ordinance be crafted? Should school lunches be charged at a flat rate or by the pound? Should childcare subsidies be allocated per child—or per litter?

“I was an antelope,” Brown recalls with a laugh. “There was a lion in the class who was very disappointed that he couldn’t eat other animals.”

The purpose of the activity, Sheehan explains, was to explore the widely varying strategies that animals use to survive.

“As humans we are all really similar to each other,” he says. “But different species show there are lots of ways to succeed and thrive.”

Students watch the winning animated movie pitch during class.
Screening what would prove to be the prize-winning project.

For the final project, Sheehan had students create their own movie pitches: they could decide whether to portray the animals with scientific accuracy, but they’d have to explain their choices (and the differences between reality and fiction).

After the screening, students voted for their favorite. The winner—about a vegetarian snake who partners with mice to solve crimes—took home the grand prize: a miniature statue of Mickey Mouse.

Top: A lesson including one of the most famous animated animals: Disney's Bambi. (All photos by Sreang Hok / Cornell University.)

Published May 15, 2024


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