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Nolan Middle fosters creativity, tech skills with new animatronics lab

Students can learn engineering, coding, videography and more with mechanical-electronic puppets, thanks to an animatronics company focused on education through imagination.

The animatronics lab will teach students about engineering, coding, costume design, visual production, audio production, lighting and more. (Photo by Liz Ramos)
The animatronics lab will teach students about engineering, coding, costume design, visual production, audio production, lighting and more. (Photo by Liz Ramos)
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Can the School District of Manatee County make learning as fun as a trip to Walt Disney World?

Just ask the parents and students who attend R. Dan Nolan Middle School.

When Nolan hosts its Back to School Night on Sept. 8, parents will be greeted by a Spark-e animatronic figure, which will be part of a Specialized Programmable Animatronic and Robotics Kit for Education — dressed in school spirit wear.

In preparation for Spark-e arriving this school year, students last year made video to accompany him for Back to School Night.

Nolan and the district's W.D. Sugg Middle School are the only two schools in Florida to have an animatronics lab, made possible through Garner Holt Education through Imagination.

Garner Holt, a native of San Bernardino, California, founded Garner Holt Productions in 1977 out of his garage while he was in high school. His animatronics company is now the world's largest, having built more than 400 figures in Disney parks throughout the world. On the company's website, Holt attributes much of his company success to his high school shop classes and teachers "who provided me with the freedom and flexibility to learn in the way that I learned best, and allowed me to learn through real-world problems and projects that interested me; projects that fostered my creativity and imagination."

His company founded Garner Holt Education through Imagination, supported by industry professionals and teachers, to provide other students with similar opportunities.

“Being that animatronics are such a big part of state’s productions and shows, it’s kind of neat to be one of the first people to get to bring this to the kids,” said Chris Robinson, the film production and animatronics teacher at Nolan Middle.

Coen Stoltz, a Nolan eighth grader, said he’s excited to learn how to use the animatronics in the coming months.

“It’s interesting to know the beginning steps to what Disney (World) and Universal (Studios) use,” he said. “It’s really cool.”

Robinson and Lindsey McKinnon, an art teacher at Nolan, flew to Redlands, California to visit Garner Holt Productions and learn more about the animatronics lab, and to receive training and prepare to have the lab at their middle school. 

“We were like kids in a candy store in California when they were showing their factory and what they’ve produced," Robinson said.

Robinson said they learned not only what animatronics can mean in the high school setting but also what the students eventually can grow into.

"We just want to be able to bring Garner Holt’s vision of providing a different type of technology and entertainment-based education to kids,” Robinson said.

Seventh graders Juliette Aronin and Samantha Gee use switchboards to control the animatronics. (Photo by Liz Ramos)
Seventh graders Juliette Aronin and Samantha Gee use switchboards to control the animatronics. (Photo by Liz Ramos)

The animatronics lab is in its beginning stages as students learn more about storytelling before putting what they’ve learned into action with the animatronics. 

By the end of the semester, the classroom will be transformed to have an entire stage complete with lighting students can control and operate so they can put on productions using the animatronics. 

“The idea is that it’s getting them into a field they probably have never been exposed to before,” Robinson said. “It’s getting them more interested in videography, audio, engineering. Kids are going to be learning how to program and use code to create basic functions. Ultimately, they’re being exposed to different fields of industry, and that’s kind of rare to find because animatronics is kind of multiple fields all in one.”

Before then, Robinson hopes to incorporate the animatronics in the school’s annual haunted house for Halloween as well as the holiday hallways where they will have each animatronic figure dressed as a different character from Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

“Adding new technology to those (events) to improve the quality would be neat,” Robinson said.

From engineering to coding to costume design, lighting, visuals and audio, Robinson said there will be a task for each of the 70 students between the two film production and animatronics classes. 

“It’s a fun way to implement artistic creativity as well as implement technology and keep up with it,” Robinson said. “Every kid has a phone in their pocket and every kid has a camera, so now I want them to learn how to use that phone for more than just scrolling through social media. I want them to use their phones for creating art, creating new ways of thinking and doing things. By adding animatronics to it, it’s just creating another element of introducing technology they normally would never have been exposed to.”

The lab will include a studio room for voice recording and film equipment for students to produce their own videos that can be displayed on the two panels adjacent to the animatronics. 

Students will learn coding and engineering to understand and learn how to move each part of the animatronics to make them talk, move their body, practice tai-chi and more. They will be able to have each of the three animatronics interacting with each other. 

Vincenzo Pino, an eighth grader, hopes to have a dance battle among the animatronics. 

“I can’t wait to design them and make them do special movements,” Pino said. 

Pino said the animatronics lab will be a great opportunity for him and his classmates to get a glimpse into what the future could be like as they learn various aspects of engineering and coding. 

“It’s really cool and so complex,” Pino said. “Knowing that not everyone our age gets to experience this is really cool.”


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