Auto-what? Teaching Mechanical Aptitude

MAKE: Magazine’s store offers a Designing Automata Kit for $59.95. The kit comes with “everything you see here!” (at right).


Automata (n): The plural of automaton, self-operating machines or mechanisms.

The kits include shaped and drilled wood pieces that are fit together with dowels. No glue or tools required. The automata you build here are cam-operated toys. Turn a knob, and a part bobs up and down, seemingly animated.

I like the Designing Automata Kit because it’s reusable and “cut right”. Having pieces that are cut and drilled to sizes that work together is especially important to simply making the project work.

My classes have experience with automata: two years ago, my 8th graders built cam-operated toys while studying engineering (National Engineers Week is Feb. 17-23, 2008). The results suffered from our lack of quality materials. We were working with discarded items such as screw-on bottle caps, cardboard, and straws. Nothing fit quite right, so my students’ toys had a herkey-jerkey character to them. One kit per pair of students would be an awesome addition to my engineering week repertoire.

This kit is going on my Hanukkah wish list!

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Engineering Month in Tech Classes

I love February because it’s when I get to teach engineering to my tech students — culminating with National Engineers Week, February 18-24, 2007. My middle school tech classes will spend all of February learning about engineering disciplines and working engineering projects.Engineers Week Logo

In 2006, my students built bridges out of craft sticks, designed ping pong ball cannons, and created egg drop containers.

This year, we’re focusing on energy generation and conservation. My students will design an energy efficient home and tour a power generation plant.

But first, they learn about engineering as a general field of work/study. Call this mission work — my degree is in Materials Engineering but when I was 12, I had no clue what an engineer did. I like the way Theodore Von Karman, an aerospace engineer, put it: “Scientists discover the world that exists; engineers create the world that never was.”

The kids and I started with Discover Engineering, a website geared toward middle school ages. I had my students answer five questions about engineering then unleashed them on the site’s games. Here’s what I asked:

  1. Name three types of engineers.
  2. Name one thing each of these engineers might create.
  3. What is the average starting salary for engineers?
  4. What level of education do engineers need?
  5. Go to the “Cool Stuff” section and read about the water slide. What kind of engineer designed it?

By far, the most popular game at Discover Engineering was Destroy the Castle, where players design a trebuchet (the game is actually on a PBS NOVA page).