Hey, so someone landed on this blog yesterday with the search term “meet the robinsons technology education”. Makes sense; they would have been directed to this post I wrote about technology education.

Given that someone’s actually interested, I thought I’d share some of the opportunities the Disney movie Meet the Robinsons, rated G in Australia, provides to discuss technology with children. Watch the trailer here. The movie is generally funny with a quick and entertaining script, although it is occasionally silly. Kids love it, although some younger children may be frightened by later scenes depicting a dark future.

Technology Education

Before we start, I’d better list the intended learning of technology education. This summary relates to the Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Framework (Technology), published in 2007 and due to be replaced by the Australian Curriculum in 2014.

In the technology learning area, students develop understandings that:

  • technologies include any artefact, system, environment, service, or information that has been developed by humans to meet needs and wants, or solve problems
  • society’s needs and wants change over time, and so has technology; the inter-relationship results in a kind of evolution of technology
  • technology design and production decisions are influenced by purpose, context, specifications and constraints
  • aspects of appropriateness must be considered in design and production of technologies; these include functional, aesthetic, ethical, cultural, economic, and sustainable considerations
  • there are positive and negative impacts of the design, development, use and disposal of technologies on people, local, regional and global communities, and the environment
  • the technology process can involve investigation, design, production and evaluation, and these stages are non-linear
  • selection of resources for the production of technologies is made according to their suitability for meeting the requirements of the design
  • selection of techniques and tools for the production of technologies is made to enhance the quality of the products, and to meet design ideas, standards and specifications

Below, I’ve retold key moments in the movie. Elements that depict opportunities to discuss technology are in bold.

Meet the Robinsons (Spoiler Alert!)
Lewis and Goob, Meet the Robinsons
Lewis and Goob

The movie follows Lewis, a 12 year old inventor who lives in an orphanage in an unnamed American city. Lewis is an active inventor, much to the entertainment (and occasional sleepless night) of his room-mate, Michael “Goob” Yagoobian.

Lewis shares his inventions, including the peanut butter and jelly (PB&J) portion controller, during interviews with potential adoptive parents, with unfortunate consequences.

In the interview scene, Lewis gives us one of the best quotes of the movie:

All it takes is some imagination and a little science, and we can make the world a better place.

This lovely, hopeful quote emphasises the necessary interactions between creativity and scientific understanding required to invent new technologies. It also highlights the underlying goal of technology (that is, assuming you’re not an evil mastermind): to “make the world a better place”.

Lewis goes on to describe a problem: portion control of peanut butter and jelly in a sandwich. “Too much peanut butter sticks to the roof of your mouth, takes forever to chew. Too much jelly squishes out the sides, makes your hand all sticky” and proposes a solution. Unfortunately, his prospective adoptive father is allergic to peanuts, and when Lewis’ invention fails in the middle of his demonstration, Lewis coats him in peanut butter and the man’s wife must use a shot of adrenalin to counteract his anaphylactic reaction. Here, students can discuss the unintended consequences of Lewis’ machine, including various aspects of appropriateness (functional).

Sadly, Lewis is *not* adopted by the couple, and retreats to his hiding place on the roof to mope. Spurred by the words of his house mother, Lewis decides that maybe his mother wants him back, so he sets out to develop a machine that will make his only memory of her visible. Now we get to see Lewis researching, investigating, designing, producing, testing, failing, persevering, researching, designing, testing, etc. He is encouraged in this by his teacher (because teachers have a role in encouraging the interests and ideas of their students!).

Lewis and his Memory Scanner
Lewis and his Memory Scanner

Lewis skips an adoption interview with another couple and heads to the local school science fair (complete with traditional ‘Mt Vesuvius’ bicarb and vinegar volcano). As he’s setting up his device, the Memory Scanner, Wilbur Robinson of the “Time Continuum Task Force” approaches Lewis, asking if he’s seen the Bowler-Hat Guy. Bowler-Hat Guy has arrived in this time from the future, accompanied by Doris, a robotic bowler hat with artificial intelligence, and closely followed by Wilbur, to steal Lewis’ device.

Despondent after his failure, Lewis tears apart his notebook. Wilbur appears, and pleads with him to try again. They argue, and Wilbur bargains with Lewis: if he proves he’s from the future, Lewis agrees to fix the Memory Scanner and return to the science fair. Wilbur follows through, taking Lewis to the future in a time machine, and we see a vision of a bright and exciting future. Another argument results in the crash of the time machine, breaking it and trapping Lewis in the future…

Meanwhile, back in the past, Bowler-Hat Guy is at Inventco, attempting to pass off the Memory Scanner as his own at Inventco, a patent and development company. We can talk about the ethics of passing off others’ ideas as our own with our students here. Bowler-Hat Guy can’t figure out how to turn the device on, though, so he sets out to find Lewis.

In the future, Wilbur and Lewis discuss the potential consequences of time travel. Wilbur and Carl, the family robot, calculate that if Lewis doesn’t return to the past and present his Memory Scanner, there’s a 99.999% chance the future won’t exist!

The Robinson Family
The Robinson Family

Lewis meets the Robinsons, without telling them he’s from the future. The movie is a little silly here, with an octopus as a butler, a dog with glasses, singing frogs, a travel tube into the toilet, and (my least favourite) a violent, verbally-abusive puppet… but the kids will love it. The only family member Lewis doesn’t meet is Cornelius, Wilbur’s father.

Wilbur shows Lewis how the time machine has evolved since the first prototype.

Lewis joins the Robinsons for dinner. The Robinsons are a close-knit, comfortable, loving family, and this is clear during the meal. The second course is served, and Carl tries to use a machine similar to Lewis’ PB&J portion controller, but it breaks. Lewis is encouraged by the Robinsons to fix the machine, but it still fails. He is upset, but the family is excited:

From failure, you learn. From success, not so much!

If I gave up every time I failed, I never would have made my meatball cannon!

The Robinsons encourage Lewis to persevere, with the catchphrase “keep moving forward.”

Meanwhile, Bowler-Hat Guy and his robot Bowler Hat are trying to grab Lewis, so that they can force him to fix the Memory Scanner. Bowler-Hat Guy animates a dinosaur, which attacks Lewis. The Robinsons work together to contain the dinosaur. Successful, Wilbur’s mum invites Lewis to join the family. Wilbur panics and reveals that Lewis is from the past. We can discuss with students: what would be the consequences if Wilbur stays with the Robinsons?

Upset by Wilbur’s betrayal, Lewis runs away from the Robinsons, and is picked up by the Bowler-Hat Guy. Bowler-Hat Guy reveals that he is actually Michael “Goob”, Yugoobian, driven mad after losing his Little League championship because he fell asleep on the field after being kept awake by Lewis’ inventing activities (back in the original time). Lewis realises he is Wilbur’s father, Cornelius. Goob reveals how he met Doris, the Bowler Hat robot, a failed invention of Cornelius, and they teamed up to try and destroy Cornelius’ life. There’s a whole lot of moving between times here, which is clear to the viewer but difficult for me to communicate in text! Lewis responds to Goob:

Look, I’m sorry your life turned out so bad, but don’t blame me. You messed it up yourself. You just focussed on all the bad stuff, when all you had to do was let go of the past and keep… moving… forward…

and realises that this same advice could apply to him, as an orphan who keeps looking to the past to find his future.

The bright, sparkling future (click through to other colouring pages)
The bright, sparkling future

Goob refuses: why take responsibility when he can blame someone else? Ask students who is responsible for the technology we create? We see Goob return to the past, carrying the working Memory Scanner, and walking into Inventco. Wilbur appears to rescue Lewis, but as he’s urging Lewis to fix the time machine and repair the timeline, the bright, pleasant future around him disappears. Lewis finds himself looking into his own Memory Scanner, which shows Doris taking over the world. The future has changed around him, and the city is now dirty, ugly and dark.

Lewis hurries to fix the time machine, and returns to the past, to reveal to Goob Doris’ dark plans for taking over the world. “I am never going to invent you,” Lewis tells Doris, and she promptly disappears. Lewis and Goob return to the future, where the bright and pleasant scenes are returning, and the Robinsons are free again.

Cornelius has returned, and shows Lewis some of the inventions he has made.

So if I go back now, then this will be my future!

Well, that depends on you. Nothing is set in stone. You gotta make the right choices and keep moving forward.

Wilbur takes Lewis to see his mother, but Lewis decides to leave the past behind and doesn’t interfere with events. He returns to his own time to attend the science fair. On his way he passes the Little League game, yelling loudly to wake Goob up. Goob makes the winning catch. At the science fair his Memory Scanner works perfectly, and he meets his adoptive parents. This beautiful quote brings the movie to a close:

Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things… and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths. – Walt Disney

Ask students about the role curiosity has to play in the development of new technologies.

Tasks for Students

Identify the purpose, context, specifications and constraints of one of the following technologies: the PB&J portion controller, the Memory Scanner, Doris.

Discuss the positive and negative impacts of using a device that could reveal hidden memories of people.

Analyse one of the following technologies for aspects of appropriateness: the PB&J portion controller, the Memory Scanner, Doris.

What do you think the future will look like? Consider some of the problems we face in society and potential solutions.

Plan, produce and evaluate a 3 minute review of the movie in the format of a video or podcast.

Is perseverance a necessary trait for an inventor? Why or why not?