NASA Partners with MICA Students on Short Films

Students at MICA often collaborate with working professionals on real-world projects, with outcomes that can have local, national, and even global influence. This past spring, thanks to a collaborative effort among Animation Department Chair Laurence Arcadias, MICA’s Office of Community Engagement, and scientists from NASA, students in the Advanced 2D Animation course translated astrophysics concepts into animation—a film project with outcomes that have a universal impact.

During the five-week project, students from MICA worked closely with the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope team at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland to animate the cosmic phenomena and theories the team of scientists is exploring.

The result—five short films that visually explore dark matter, binary stars, Fermi bubbles, cosmic rays, and space debris—has tremendous potential in helping NASA educate the public about the Fermi telescope mission and the science behind it. The animations have already been presented at the SIGGRAPH 2014’s 3rd Annual Faculty Submitted Student Work Exhibit and at a conference at Columbia University in New York.

“The collaboration started from a discussion I had with Robin Corbet, a scientist who is part of the Fermi Gammaray Space Telescope team,” Arcadias explained. “We discussed merging disciplines, and, eventually, we started to plan a class project where students at MICA had to react to real scientific challenges that the Fermi team tries to solve.”

To kick off the project, Corbet visited with students at MICA to discuss the research being conducted by the Fermi scientists. The students began to create storyboards and animatics based on that information, and with organizational support from the Office of Community Engagement, were able to show their ideas on location at Goddard Space Flight Center. “For the students, going on site and standing in front of the scientists and explaining their concepts was an incredible experience. They got good feedback and support, and several scientists offered to mentor student teams all along the production phase,” Arcadias said.

The students then began to further develop their ideas, translating astrophysics concepts into animation. Use of the website Tumblr to post their work allowed their mentors at NASA to leave feedback. Another outcome of the project was the creation of an internship that will allow an animation student from MICA to create art and develop research projects under the guidance of scientists at NASA.

This past summer, Turner Gillespie ’14 (animation) became the first student selected for the initiative. He co-presented his project at the DC/MD/VA Astrophysics Summer 2014 Meeting. “Having scientists review their work was a real eye opener for the students. They were surprised to see how easy and meaningful the communication was, and how receptive and impressed the scientists were by their work,” Arcadias concluded.

“It was important for everyone involved to learn to communicate—not just for the students to learn more science, but for scientists to understand what animation is about, and what it can do to serve a purpose. Hopefully this is the start of something bigger.”

For more on the MICA and NASA collaboration, visit

Terrestrial gamma-rays

MICA Animation Students

Space Debris

Jihye Jung & Amber Choi
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