The Story Behind our Online Automata Courses

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UPDATE: 2024 Workshop Available Now

We are overjoyed to be running our online Automata Tinkering Global Workshop in January for the 7th time. We never imagined back in Sept 2020 that there would continue to be such an appetite for online making. Like everyone in the pandemic, we cautiously ventured into meeting online and discovered many intrepid automata makers who were eager to experiment with us.

A screenshot of a 6 person zoom call, everybody's hands are making.

Automata Tinkering Global Workshop

A person made of collage and cut up photos is being tickled by 2 feathers attached to a crank mechanism.
Tickle Machine, Phyliss Famigletti

Our ingenious facilitator Ryan Jenkins from Wonderful Idea Co. and the Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium, San Francisco, devised a superb programme for the 6 weekly 2-hour sessions that took place at 4pm UK time to best fit in with numerous time zones across the world. Together with 3 other facilitators he modified and improved the course encouraging everyone to experiment using the kits provided ahead of the course. Working in small groups in breakout rooms they developed personal projects that they worked on between sessions. To date they have been shipped to over 168 people in 19 countries and all of them made it!  

A highlight that everyone loved were the invited guest artists that joined for about 4 of the sessions. Studio zoom tours from artists in the CMT collection included Martin Smith, Lisa Slater and Carlos Zapata who generously shared their stories, process, tips and tricks with the group, they were a huge inspiration.

Stephen Guy also joined us for the second week and gave a detailed workshop exploring the Cardboard Cam Kit from his London studio with a multitude of examples of his work with his wonderfully weird signature dolls heads automata combined with parts of broken toys.

The kits we use have grown out of running large workshops in science centres, museums and galleries across the world as part of our touring exhibition programme over the past 30 years. We use them for the first 4 sessions which has led us to develop them as a range of Mechanical Making Projects for people to experiment with at home. They are now available as products for sale in our online shop that we also ship worldwide.  This includes the Cardboard Cam Kit, Cranky Contraptions and the Automata Tinkering Kit so everyone gets to tinker, with help from a how-to online video link, at home.

There is joy in working collaboratively and you can make automata out of anything!

Elin May 2022

Computational Contraptions Global Workshop

A laptop with stepped programming is attached to a white box lit with lids and a small house in the centre. It looks like a snowy scene.
Computational Contraptions

We also experimented with another online course, Computational Contraptions, that introduced some simple electronics controlled by a BBC micro:bit. It was a lot of fun, but quite a juggle to do online with participants with varying degrees of experience who needed to manoeuvre zoom and do some micro:bit programming while tinkering! 

A hand holds some electronic components. There is a laptop with a multi person zoom call in the background.
Bexhill College Engineering Student’s workshop

Thanks to some Arts Council England funding both Steve and Ryan ran workshops with a group of 87 year 7 Design and Technical secondary school students. Together with the kits they each received a copy  of Edward Lear’s Nonsense Songs as part of a collaboration with the annual children’s book festival A Town Explores A Book

Working with the BBC micro:bit and electronics has so much potential with a lot of extremely interesting creatives out there using these tools, we’d like to come back to this project and see if we can perfect it so we can run it again in the future.

Community Groups

Two painted cardboard fish wearing frilly jumpers attached to a simple crank mechanism.
Fish in Jumpers, Loulou Cousin

As part of the same Arts Council funding we ran workshops with Culture Shift working with BOBS, a group of learning disabled adults and with the Discovery College with a group of teenagers experiencing mental health issues. In addition we worked with a group of Sixth Form Engineering Students from Bexhill College and a group of A Town Explores A Book Festival artist facilitators and mentees who produced an award winning film inspired by the Edward Lear Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany & Alphabets. You can watch the film here.

We plan to fundraise to continue community workshops in 2023.

Fabricating Motion Automata Workshop

A machine with pulleys either side and a cam in the centre. A small character sits on top.
      Pulley machine, Stephen Guy

In early November 2022 we finished a pilot with Stephen Guy that was created for those who have already taken the Automata Tinkering Global Workshop and wanted to deepen their automata making skills. Steve has been using his wood and metal design as a starting point for 2-4 day workshops for over 10 years. We worked with 10 makers for 6 weeks and the feedback was very positive so we are currently evaluating it to see whether this could be a regular feature of our online workshop programme. 

Online was fantastic! (otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to go from Sydney!)

Liz 2022

CMT Automata Tinkering Community

Everyone that has taken part is very keen to keep in touch with us and each other. To support our growing global community of tinkerers we have regular posts on Instagram and several mailing lists, including one specifically for makers who are the first to hear about new developments. We also set up a Slack group that anyone who has taken part in an online workshop can join and chat with others. We also keep open another online platform called Padlet, that we use during the workshops to share ideas, prototypes, resources and recordings of the sessions indefinitely so they can return and review mechanisms discussed or source useful materials in their country. We have fun discussing different names of materials such as lolly stickers in GB English or popsicle sticks in US English, brads (US) split pins (GB) and everyone shares useful suppliers in their respective countries.

Workshop facilitators

Celeste is smiling at the camera, behind her is a wall covered in interesting making projects.
Celeste Moreno

We couldn’t have done this work without the expertise and skills of our wonderful group of facilitators who have supported so many participants of all ages, abilities and levels with such sensitivity and creativity allowing everyone to take part on their own terms. Like the participants, the online nature of the workshop allows us to bring on board facilitators and artists from across the world. To create a pool of people we also provide support as they develop their skills and understand the tinkering ethos and approach.  

Stephen Guy with his mechanical machines made from old toys
Stephen Guy

Current artist-facilitators

Ryan Jenkins Wonderful Idea Co.

Stephen Guy Fire The Inventor

Celeste Moreno blog link

Loulou Cousin Instagram

Jake Fee blog link        

Ryan is smiling at the camera and holding wires and components
Ryan Jenkins

BRAVO!! So wonderful to participate in this. Everyone did an awesome job and I think we all came away with renewed motivation. I loved how you emphasized the problem-solving aspect of it all. Fail and fail again, but in new and interesting ways. Ryan was an enthusiastic moderator and all the co-moderators brought different viewpoints and experience to the class. Thank you!

Kate 2021

What’s next

We plan to continue the online workshops, we’ve had so much encouraging feedback from those taking part. We will also continue to develop and pilot new ideas as they evolve, we know that responding to the ever changing world is essential. We are planning new in-person 2-day workshops for early 2023 and are still hunting for a new CMT Tinkering space in Hastings, East Sussex in the UK so we can have regular workshops for the community and experienced makers. Make sure to follow our social media and sign up to our newsletter if you want to hear the news as plans evolve.

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Article by Lisa Finch, CMT Development Director

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  1. Suzy says:

    Are you planning to run another online course soon? / in 2024
    Thanks suzy

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