William Floyd High School students show off singing robotic birds they designed and built with help from a California-based design firm. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

A little Disney magic came to life in the library at William Floyd High School recently as students there showed off singing animatronic birds they built with assistance from a California-based design firm.

It took months for the students to plan, design and construct the robotic birds, which swivel and dance to popular songs with the flick of a switch. The district launched the Animatronics Club while working with the education division of Garner Holt Productions, a leading producer of moving characters for Universal, Disney parks and other attractions worldwide. The high school in Mastic is the only one on Long Island and in the state to do so.

“It's a really cool project because it encompasses a lot of different components that are used in the industry, from initial design to the art elements to the electrical management,” said Joseph Brand, a technology teacher at the high school. “They're thinking of a big vision and executing it.”

The district launched the program this school year and is seeking to make it a class next school year. It started as a club and drew students from science, math and art — making it a perfect lesson incorporating STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math), educators there said. The group of about 25 high school students met once a week to build their animatronic characters. Teachers from the different disciplines advised the group.

The William Floyd district launched the Animatronics Club while working with the education division of Garner Holt Productions, a leading producer of moving characters for Universal, Disney parks and other attractions worldwide.

The high school in Mastic is the only one on Long Island and in the state to do so.

The district launched the program this school year and is seeking to make it a class next school year. 

“They learned about servos, they learned about coding, they learned about the design process and how to make something that starts as plans come to life,” said Theresa Bianco, the district’s chairperson of the fine arts department. “And it is literally coming to life right in front of you.”

Bianco was researching projects and came across the education resources offered by Garner Holt. She contacted the company’s Education Through Imagination program, which offers hands-on learning to teach children about possible careers in animatronics.

That program is made up of a team of educators and industry professionals who provide students with a strong foundation in creativity, innovation, technology and entrepreneurship. It has served more than a dozen school districts across the country, from southern California to eastern Florida, according to Bill Butler, vice president of creative development.

"These programs help teach the fundamentals of animatronic character development and construction and show students possible career pathways in a creative technical market," Butler said.

The William Floyd students received the Animatronic Songbird Build Kit.

The seven “birds” arrived at William Floyd as pieces in a box — at a cost of about $900 each. Via Zoom meetings with the production company staff, the students divided into groups and worked to design all aspects of the birds — from choosing the songs to deciding how the characters would move.

The effort started in October and ended in March when the students showed off their creations at a science symposium open house in the district.

“I think it's phenomenal because I think it reinforces the concept that students can make these things, and these students can absolutely go into the field further on in life and continue making incredible projects for places like Disney and other theme parks,” said sophomore Victoria Basharina, 16.

Each bird is controlled by a servo — a small electronic motor — and the students choreographed and designed the movements to match the music and theme that they had selected. One bird dances to "Hakuna Matata" from "The Lion King," another to Miley Cyrus’ "Party in the U.S.A.," and a black-and-red bird dances to "Back in Black" by AC/DC surrounded by tombstones perched upon a plastic skull.

“I was very excited to be able to work on something like this because normally in the art department we don't get to work on things [that] have to do with technology as well,” art teacher Erin Almeida said.

The art students designed the birds' exteriors, dyeing fake fur, adding feathers, painting the beaks and constructing their stands.

Junior Addison Ferrari’s group chose a jazz theme, perching their bird on a tiny stage with light bulbs.

“We were really inspired by New Orleans and Mardi Gras,” said Ferrari, 16. “Getting all those pieces and putting it together was very tedious and very hard, but at the end we came out with an amazing result.”

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