Putting the “Arts” back in STEAM with our Scenery Tool

July 23rd, 2015 by Deborah Fike

Contraption Maker is known primarily as a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) game and for good reason.  Many of today’s scientists played The Incredible Machine, Contraption Maker’s predecessor, as young children.  But did you know Contraption Maker is a good learning tool for STEAM (the A standing for Arts)?  During the last year, for example, we’ve had teachers use Contraption Maker to teach language arts lessons.  This article will walk you through using Contraption Maker to create art using our Scenery Tool, or you can watch our handy video tutorial on the subject:



The Scenery Tool lets you easily create custom backgrounds for your contraptions in Make mode.  This allows you to really personalize your machines, separating them visually from the machines that other people make.

The Scenery Bin and the Layers Panel

The Scenery Tool is broken up to into 2 parts.  First, there’s the Scenery Bin.  Located on the right side of the screen, the Scenery Bin contains all the different objects (such as textures, trees, speech bubbles, etc.) that you can use like stickers as part of your background.

Scenery Bin

The Scenery Bin

Second, there the Layers Panel, also located on the right hand side of the screen.  The Layers Panel allows you to organize all your scenery objects by letting you decide what’s on top and what’s behind.  If you’ve ever used Photoshop or a similar photo editing tool, this should feel familiar to you.

Layers Panel

The Layers Panel

Notice that the Layers Panel shows a part layer and scenery layers.  The part layer is the layer that contains your machine, while scenery layers contain objects from the scenery bin.  Any scenery layer that is placed above the part layer in the Layers Panel (such as Scenery 1 in the picture above) will be placed above all the parts in your machine.  Any scenery layer that is below the part layer in the Layers Panel (such as Scenery 2 in the picture above) will be placed behind all the parts in your machine.  You can add or delete layers by using the yellow plus button or orange trash can button at the bottom of the Layers Panel.

Here’s an example of using layers in action:

Scenery layers can be placed above or below the parts layer.

Scenery layers can be placed above or below the parts layer.

In the above picture, I placed the trees as part of Scenery 1, which is why they appear in front of the pipes in my machine.  I then clicked on Scenery 2 and placed the green house in my picture.  Since Scenery 2 is below the part layer in the Layers Panel, the house appears behind the pipes of my machine.

Layers Panel Properties

The Layers Panel has several features.  You can move scenery layers by clicking and dragging them around inside the Layers Panel.  So, for example, if you want both scenery layers behind the part layer, you can click and drag Scenery 1 so it is below Scenery 2.  You can also choose different scenery layers to be on top of each other, so you could drag Scenery 2 to be above Scenery 1.

Each layer has two icons, a lock symbol and an eyeball.  The lock symbol determines whether you can edit the current layer.  If the layer is unlocked, you can add and move objects around the layer.  If it is locked, you cannot do anything to the layer until you unlock it.  The eyeball makes the layer visible.  If you click the eyeball, it will disappear, and all scenery objects in that layer will no longer be visible.  Click it again to make it reappear.

Each scenery layer also has a transparency bar under it.  All objects within that layer are fully opaque (or not see through) when the bar is set all the way to the right.  The farther you move the bar left, the more transparent objects within that layer become.  Moving it all the way left makes the objects disappear.  Note how faint the house in Scenery 2 becomes when I move its transparency bar to the left:


Transparency Bar

Scenery Object Properties

As you place scenery objects into your machine, you’ll notice that the objects themselves have properties.  Let’s take a look at all the options around any particular scenery object:

Scenery Object Properties

Scenery Object Properties

  • The white double arrow handle allows you to rotate the object 360 degrees.
  • The orange arrows button allows you to flip the object to its mirror image.
  • The white transparency bar allow you to change how opaque this one object is.
  • The white quadruple arrows button allows you to adjust the size of the object.  (Holding shift while you use this button will allow you to size the object proportionally.)
  • The blue bullhorn button allows you to adjust the object’s animation. (More on this feature in our Scenery Animation video.)
  • The 2 blue up and down arrow buttons allow you to send the object backward and forward within its own layer.
  • The red trash button deletes the object from your machine.

Special Scenery Parts

There are a few special scenery parts that are worth noting.  Clicking on the text box object (the big T in the Scenery Bin) will allow you to add a text box to your contraption.  Further clicking the yellow wrench icon property of the text box will allow you to change the words inside of the box along with some basic font properties:

Font Object

Text Box Object

Clicking on the striped square, triangle or circle will create a patterned shape in your contraption.  Further clicking the yellow wrench icon property of the patterned shape allows you to pick different patterns and colors of the object.  This is very useful to make some cool custom shape pieces (such as textured backgrounds) for your machines:

Patterned Shapes

Patterned Shape Object

Setting Boundaries

One last thing to note is that each machine has its own boundary.  Everything inside the black box will be viewable to other players when published to the workshop.  Anything outside the box will not be visible.  In this player-made puzzle, only half of the pink house will be viewable to others who play the machine:

This player-created puzzle shows the viewable border.

This player-created puzzle shows the boundary.

If you want to resize this area, click the orange gears button at the top of the screen and select “Resize Puzzle.”

Dramatic Results

That’s a basic rundown of the Scenery Tool.  To really get a feel of how this adds to a puzzle, see how this excellent (but plain) puzzle transforms from this:

hotfoot hound bare

Player-made puzzle Hotfoot Hound without scenery.

to this with just a few layers and changes using the Scenery Tool:

hotfoot hound

Player-made puzzle Hotfoot Hound with scenery.

For more Contraption Maker tutorials, check out:

-Deborah Fike


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