Rube Goldberg competition gets teens excited about STEM
In recent years the US has begun to lag in education for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and a number of efforts are underway to address this issue. We know that giving kids hands-on experience is one of the best ways to spark and keep their interest in STEM-related fields, and to this end, high schoolers all over the country are getting an opportunity to learn and apply STEM knowledge by participating in the annual Rube Goldberg Machine Contest.
Rube Goldberg, who was himself an engineer, is most famous for his cartoons that depicted contrived, complex contraptions for executing the most mundane tasks. The cartoons were meant to serve as a criticism for the encroachment of technology in our lives during the early part of the 20th century, and the tendency to favor “exerting maximum effort to achieve minimal results.” Rube Goldberg machines, named in honor of these cartoons, typically involve complex arrangements of levers, pulleys, balloons, ball bearings, mouse traps, and other mechanical means that could accomplish something as simple as starting a phonograph.
Perhaps the most recent example of a Rube Goldberg machine in pop culture was featured in a recent video by the band OK Go. Known for their unusual and widely viewed music videos, the band spent 5 months with a team of as many as 60 engineers and designers to create an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine synced to its song “This Too Shall Pass.” The machine ultimately shoots colored paint out of air cannons and all over the band members at the end of the four-minute song.
In 1949, two engineering fraternities at Purdue University began a competition to devise the most complex machine to accomplish a given goal. That competition lasted for six years, but was later revived by one of the fraternities in 1983. The competition culminated in the first national Rube Goldberg Machine Contest in 1988, and it has been held at Purdue ever since. In 2007, high schools were permitted to participate in the national contest for the first time, giving kids as young as 14 exposure to one of the most exciting and diabolical engineering competitions ever.
Having grown up in the same city as Purdue University, I got to witness several collegiate national competitions, including the classics, “put coins in a bank, toast a slice of bread” and “squeeze the juice from an orange.” This year’s goal was to create a machine that can dispense hand sanitizer in no less than 20 steps. I had the incredible opportunity to serve as a judge for a Chicago-area regional high school competition held recently at Prosser Career Academy. Five schools competed for a chance to go on to compete at the national contest at Purdue on March 27, including one school that traveled all the way from North Carolina.
Competition builds better engineers
The teams competing included Prosser and Jones College Prep from the Chicago Public Schools system, Niles West High School and Downers Grove North High School from the suburbs, and River Mill Academy from Graham, North Carolina. Schools normally compete in a local regional competition, and advisor Sandi Daigle told Ars that the Rivermill team had originally planned to compete in Knoxville, Tennessee. However, only River Mill and a team from Knoxville were registered for that event, and the rules require at least three teams to compete to move on to nationals. “It was either here, Las Vegas, or Korea,” she said.
Funding seemed to be a big concern for most of the schools participating. “Our school is tiny—we don’t even have bells,” Daigle told Ars. “We ended up having a parent donate frequent flyer miles to pay for the hotel.”
The team from Jones Prep had an even bigger budget constraint: $0. The science budget only included enough money for the entry fee for the regional competition; the machine itself had to be built using only materials in advisor Alexis Kovacs’ Physics lab. “Using what we could find, including cardboard and duct tape, we built a pretty good Rube Goldberg machine without buying anything fancy,” Kovacs told Ars.
The machine also included masses from a balance set, physics text books, astronomy board games, the ever-popular series of dominos, a vintage motorized solar system model, and trash cans “appropriated” from the school’s sixth floor. The team did admit to pooling loose change to buy water balloons, however.
“I think it makes it more challenging,” Kovacs said, “but I think in the end the kids feel better about themselves about having built something that didn’t require buying anything.”
The teams were all built from membership in a science or engineering club, and most noted that the Rube Goldberg competition gave them a directed goal to work towards throughout the school year. “We don’t have a lot of extra-curricular activities,” River Mill’s Daigle told Ars, “and I said, ‘Hey, I’m interested in starting an engineering club.’ The Rube Goldberg contest gave us something to do in the club, as opposed to sitting around and tinkering with stuff.”
Most of the teacher/advisors agreed that giving kids a hands-on opportunity was a critical aspect of participating in the competition. “It’s a great way to get kids who might otherwise be intimidated by the math or hard science involved and interested in STEM,” Kovacs said. “For those that are already interested in science or engineering fields, this helps them be able to solve real problems and really use their hands.”
Downer Grove North’s Jeff Grant agreed, noting that the competition helped his students to see their ideas turned into something tangible. “I think that’s super vital,” he told Ars. “There’s just no opportunity to do something like this in the classroom.”
Teamwork and the team-building experience were also considered important aspects of the competition. Niles West advisor Ben Brzezinski told Ars that working as a team will be a skill that the students will use for the rest of their lives. “Wherever they end up, they are going to have to work as a team to build things, whether they go into engineering or any other field,” he said. “There definitely has to be a sort of synergy there, as well as leadership, and camaraderie.”
That camaraderie is something that River Mill team member Joshua Crumb valued most. “It’s a great bond—you have eight or so people that you might honestly never talk to, and by the end we’re all like family,” he told Ars.
Prosser advisor and competition organizer Nathan Dolenc said that getting to know his students better was his number-one priority, something he felt many teachers miss out on. “Yes, it’s about making the machine work, but it’s also about the journey getting there,” he told Ars. “Hopefully, some of my lessons rub off on them.”