In Depth Project: Animatronics

Materials: 2-speed 12VDC Windshield wiper motors, PVC pipe, bubble wrap/foam pool noodles, various connectors/motor arms, various hand and power tools, props and costumes, iPad or mini projector


Materials included: PVC pipe, metal fasteners, power drills, wires, and wood.

This unit was designed to explore the possibilities of how far into the world of animatronics students could go in our makerspace. Animatronics is a unique and mostly unexplored industry at the cross section of STEAM. Fortunately for the students at Bing Wong Elementary in San Bernardino, CA, the world leader in animatronics happens to have his business center and warehouse 5 minutes down the street. Garner Holt Productions has adopted our school because of our focus on career exploration and STEAM. As a thank you to Garner Holt for adopting our school, we thought it would be perfect to have our students make animatronics to showcase for him at our adoption ceremony. We had never built animatronics before this project, but had worked with servo motors. We had also built underwater ROVs using a lot of the same materials we wanted to use with animatronics, so we had some background skills and knowledge to guide our exploration. We had 5 groups of 4 students (grades 4-6) working with 1 adult each, 2 days per week after school for an hour over the course of 8-10 weeks.  

In this project, students decide upon a character they want to build and up to two movements they’d like the character to do (movements can include nodding of the head, waving an arm, shaking hands, spinning a rope, basically anything repetitive), sketch out the skeleton of the animatronic and measure out PVC pipe, wood, and dowels to build the skeleton, study the wiper motor mechanisms and figure out how to place the wiper motor to the skeleton in order to get the desired body part to make its movement, cover the skeleton with bubble wrap and costumes so it looks like a realistic figure, record a video of the animatronic character (a student actor) speaking and have it playing on an iPad that can be attached as the head of the animatronic.

Structural foundation

A student and adult leader working together to build the structural foundation for the animatronic figure.

As we worked through this project, we realized that students needed to stop often for mini-lessons from their adult leader. Students needed to understand the electronics (and safety) of the motor. Students needed to understand the physics of motion. Students needed help with measurement. Students found they needed parts that didn’t exist. Students needed crash courses in fashion and costuming as well. We realized by the end of the project that the project itself could have easily been broken up into “chunks” or units of learning that would have helped to allow for more creativity in the process. But because we went into the project blind, we learned through trial and error that we may have done things in an order that took entirely too long, or we overlooked important learning opportunities in order to meet a deadline, or we missed out on opportunities to share our knowledge across groups because of the way we were grouped (instead of working as one large team on multiple projects together, we worked as separate teams). We also had never made anything so physically large before. Most of our projects in our makerspace, are small tabletop projects. These animatronic figures we were making were fully life-size and some of them slightly oversized!

Designing for the laser cutter

A student working on a design to laser cut as part of the figure finishing process.

If I could do this project again, I’d spend time with the adult leaders crafting a sort of construction manual divided into units. We would start with the structure of the animatronic. Spend time sketching out the skeleton with dimensions and teaching students how to frame such a large project. Next, we would move on to the motors. Spend time teaching students and having them explore how the motor works with smaller objects first. Last, we would spend time “figure finishing” the animatronic, as it’s called in the world of animatronics. This would include lessons on how to make the animatronic look lifelike, where all the fun art comes in! We could explore with makeup, sewing, vacuum forming, even skin and hair.

An animatronics project truly allows for so much creativity. The learning possibilities seem endless as we could easily have taken our finished animatronics and tried to improve their mechanisms with more electronic parts, sensors could be added, customized 3D-printed body parts could be designed, eyes with eyelids that open and close, hands with fingers that bend and move, speakers could be added, so many options to explore with this project. So many in fact, that we have made animatronics a class elective at our school so students have the option to go into depth for longer periods of time.