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Automata Activities - Allowing Space for Inventing

Automata Activities - Allowing Space for Inventing

Whenever we facilitate activities for our visitors, we thrive to support the kind of learning we describe in our Tinkering Learning dimensions framework. We often reflect on the drop-in workshops we do day to day in the tinkering studio with a specific aspect of the LDs in mind. One of the qualities I value a great deal in tinkering activities is that learners are encouraged to work without a blueprint whenever possible. I think that this process of "inventing" instead of copying fosters a deeper understanding of the topic at hand.

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Making automata always has been a challenging activity in that regard. Different movements are achieved with different mechanisms and as we show examples to introduce the activity, participants often pick a certain mechanism - "up and down" for example - and then start to copy the parts involved in the mechanism, carefully looking at the shape and material of each part, but not necessarily their purposes.

We recently were inspired by automata maker Keith Newstead, a visiting artist at the Tinkering Studio, to change our facilitation approach to our "cranky contraptions" activity while using the same material set. In the new version of the activity, we encourage visitors to adopt a process similar to the artist's: start by making a simple crank slider mechanism, create a character or puppet that has moving parts to it and attach it to the stick (slider) of the crank-slider mechanism. From that point, learners develop strategies specific to their contraption in order to make the limbs of the character move; this process is supported by facilitators and facilitated by playing with a number of sample mechanisms available on the table.

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A selection of automata visitors made starting with a crank slider mechanism

What participants created when we took this different approach may look similar to the results of the previous approach at first blush, but the quality of the process felt different to me.


In one of our recent debrief sessions, the team came up with lists of strengths and challenges for different automata activities we have tried. These are some of the points that came up as we discussed the new version:


  • Artist’s process connection
  • Organic movements
  • sum immediately greater than parts
  • Allows for deeper understanding, linkages exploring length, distances.
  • Quantitative comparison mathematical thinking
  • Looks more theatrical -Aesthetically more compelling, more complex
  • Clear designation for animated sculpture


  • Can be complex / takes a while to understand the system (deep end)
  • More challenging to facilitate
  • Only a few kids do the linkages
  • Working with wire is hard
  • Scale tends to be small (& makes it harder)
  • Examples and starting points need development

My take on our reflections is that this version of the activity — while more challenging for educators to facilitate — has real potential to have learners develop a deeper understanding of linkages and mechanisms.

This really shows that she is grappling with a newly learned concept, something she was able to figure out with her hands but hasn't learned the words to describe yet.

Effie has some difficulty finding the right words when she talks about the wing and how it is moving differently from the body because it is constrained by the secondary wire. To me this really shows that she is grappling with a newly learned concept, something she was able to figure out with her hands but hasn't learned the words to describe yet.


Facilitating automata-making in this new way — starting with a simple crank slider mechanism and then encouraging learners to work with linkages and constraints — has resulted in many interesting explorations, and I have enjoyed accompanying visitors in their process of figuring it out as they go along. My take-away for all activities involving explorations of mechanics is to carefully consider at what point in time knowledge about mechanisms is being introduced. It seems that getting engaged in making and immersed in one’s own project *before* examples of specific mechanisms are introduced sets the mind on a trajectory of inventing rather than copying.