Revisiting the Automata Lesson

A few years back, in my Creator’s Studio course, I taught a unit on automata. defines an automaton as “a mechanical figure or contrivance constructed to act as if by its own motive power.” I have always been intrigued by this concept, seeing example automata in museums and magic shops as a kid. The idea of an inanimate object suddenly coming to life through motion was just fascinating as a child, and still stirs a bit of wonder in me today.

The understanding of gears, shafts, and levers also plays well into any lesson related to STEM, mechanical engineering, invention and design. So when the opportunity arose to introduce a new unit into my course, an automata project seemed a great fit. You can read more about that original unit at Creator’s Studio here.

This past weekend, at Windward School’s Design & Maker Class Colloquium, I participated in an engaging workshop facilitated by Aaron Kramer, local artist and maker (and fellow reDiscover board member), who took us through the build process of a simple, yet open-ended cardboard automaton. What I learned from Aaron, beyond great strategies for teaching this lesson again, is that less is more.

Aaron shared a single type of motion, using a crank and shaft to convert rotational motion (round and round) into reciprocal motion (up and down). Here’s my example from the workshop below.

What I appreciated about Aaron’s approach was his focus on simplicity. Get the concept down, understand the motion conversion that’s taking place, then create something that models that concept. By centering our lesson on just the one type of motion, we could quickly get up and running on a basic model and spend more time on the artistic aspect, what happens above the fulcrum, where the converted motion occurs. And with 20 or so people in the workshop, we created 20 completely different automata. Each model reflected the owner’s personal preferences and tastes.

I enjoyed the fact that Aaron used easily accessible materials (straws, coffee stirrers, tape, cardboard) and shared how important it is to observe the relationship between objects. In this case, the straws served as perfect bearings for the coffee stirrers, and a pencil made holes in cardboard that fit the straws exactly. Brilliant!

It was a fun-filled workshop and one that I look forward to incorporating into a future lesson with students and educators alike.

For more photos from my early exploration into teaching automata, here’s a google photo album. To see more of Aaron’s work, take a look at his facebook page.


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