Animatronics is the art and science of robotic storytelling. At the 1964 New York World’s Fair, the Walt Disney Company presented “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” – a popular attraction that featured a robot Abraham Lincoln that gave a 5-minute presentation dealing with such subjects as justice and the US Constitution. The attraction later moved to Disneyland where it continues to operate to this day. Animatronics has since become a staple of theme park attractions and has delighted countless millions.
The Lincoln show was not only entertaining, it hinted at something much more profound – that animatronics could be a powerful educational tool. Learning about America’s Civil War directly from Mr. Lincoln, standing in the room with you, makes a lasting impression.
As educational as it might be to experience an animatronic show, creating a show from scratch is a much deeper experience. Teachers have long asked students to create reports, plays, videos, etc. as a way to get their students to engage more fully with the material at hand. Animatronics offers another medium for this sort of storytelling.
Paul Dietz, a former FIRST mentor, and his wife, Cathy, started the first school animatronics program back in 2006. Their daughter was uninterested, in traditional robotics programs. She objected to “building robots to fight in some made up competition”. However, a weekend project to build a storytelling robotic raccoon turned into a big hit. This was the initial inspiration. Many school robotics programs use a sports metaphor. Why not use a theatre metaphor as another option? Thus was born the Animatronics Workshop.
Unlike traditional STEM robotics activities, animatronics is a true STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) program. Creating an animatronics show can involve creating characters, writing scripts, building robots, costuming, set construction, voice acting, stage direction and motion programming.
It is common practice on high school robotics teams to have the kids specialize. Some kids build mechanical hardware, others do electronics, while a chosen few write the code. Yet another group handles fund raising.
In animatronics programs, we have a strong preference against early specialization. We want every child to get a full, interdisciplinary experience. So everyone works on the story. Everyone works on the robots. In this way, the kids see the connections, and can follow a much more iterative process. Sometimes, kids will build a robot, and then discover that its range of expression suggests changes to the story. A big advantage of this approach is that the kids feel a much greater sense of ownership of the project as they contributed to every aspect. They also leave empowered, knowing that all of these skills are in their grasp.
As a storytelling medium, animatronics can integrate directly into traditional curricula. So instead of writing a book report, maybe kids create a small robotic show depicting a pivotal event. The possibilities are limited only by imagination. When students learn about technology in situ, it makes sense to them. It’s a tool. It has a point. For the kids that are not driven by technology for technology’s sake, it’s a path to get the tech skills they need without them tuning out.
Most importantly, tech serves here to help kids tell the stories that matter to them. Sometimes the stories are silly. But sometimes they are they stories that preserve a culture, reveal a new viewpoint of an historical event, or explore a deeply personal challenge. Storytelling is powerful, not just because it conveys information, but because it can make us think and feel. At its best, this is what animatronics is all about.