Parts, Purposes, and Complexities with Cardboard Automata


There are many different approaches that can be explored with any of our tinkering activities, and in our constant effort to develop and refine our own practice we like to vary our own ways of presenting things, and try out new stuff. Taking a page from an approach we tried in the past, during a recent PD workshop with teachers from La Scuola International School we adapted a thinking routine from Agency by Design’s Project Zero called Parts, Purposes, and Complexities in this manner.

We gave participants example movements with the sides covered up, a big sheet of chart paper, and a single colored marker. We asked participants or use the marker to sketch all the parts of the box they could see, identify their purpose, then try to imagine what mechanism might be inside the box to create the movement above, and make a sketch of their hypothesis.

Cardboard Automata at La Scuola Cardboard Automata at La Scuola

Immediately sketches and ideas started forming and being represented on paper, and we saw interesting strategies being used to figure out the mystery mechanism.

Cardboard Automata at La Scuola Cardboard Automata at La Scuola

One popular strategy involved using all the sense and the body to enact movement and communicate with partners ideas and key observations. Sound became a powerful clue, and I noticed several people taking careful note of when the paper covering up the sides bulged out during the rotation of the crank, or whether the triangle moved smoothly throughout its arc or had sudden “jumps” up or down.

Cardboard Automata at La Scuola Cardboard Automata at La Scuola

Others modeled what they thought they would find inside with found and improvised objects to scaffold their thinking.

Cardboard Automata at La Scuola Cardboard Automata at La Scuola

After some time we collected all the green markers and switched them for black ones, allowed the participants to open up their boxes, and instructed them to observe the mechanism inside, sketch the differences from what they imagined, and also carefully note which parts of the construction were glued to each other, and which were allowed to move freely. We were working with 50 teachers at once, and this activity typically requires a lot of facilitation, so we were hoping that by structuring this initial observation phase more rigidly it would help them avoid making costly mistakes when it came to building their own.

Cardboard Automata at La Scuola

After that, we opened up the activity to freely build, and the teachers were quickly engaged in their own ideas, goals, and aesthetic choices.

If you are experimenting with Cardboard Automata, or are planning on facilitating the activity with a large group of people, this might be a helpful approach to pursue. Try it out and let us know in the comments how it went!

Some highlights from the day below.

Cardboard Automata at La Scuola Cardboard Automata at La Scuola

Cardboard Automata at La Scuola Cardboard Automata at La Scuola

From planning phase to finished execution: a tinkering sign holder and a Neapolitan scene.

Cardboard Automata at La Scuola Cardboard Automata at La Scuola

A peacock’s tail feathers opening mechanism.

Cardboard Automata at La Scuola Cardboard Automata at La Scuola

A fantastic owl, and celebrating a success just as time was running out.

Very useful. What kind of foam or material did you use for the cams and thickness? And where did you get this material? Thanks.

Hi Richard! We get 6mm thick foamie sheets from for the cams and followers, and 2mm thick sheets for decoration and the narrative part.

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