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Rube Goldberg Project

Fun and play can create a more engaging learning environment. One of the units in eighth grade science that exemplifies learning through creative, playful, engagement is the Rube Goldberg unit. A Rube Goldberg device is a machine that uses a chain reaction of steps to accomplish a simple goal in a complex and whimsical way. At Friends’ Central School (FCS), the eighth grade students, in groups of 2-3, build Rube Goldberg devices to learn about energy.

The prompt for the Rube Goldberg device project is as follows:

“Your device must have at least five different steps.

You must use at least three different types of energy in your device including electrical energy (electricity). Your project must start with a marble and end with a marble (you get extra bonus points for connecting your device to another group's Rube Goldberg device). Your device must pop a balloon.

You must be able to identify and describe the different types of energy your device uses. The more elaborate the device the higher your score. The more types of energy your device employs, the higher your score.

For more inspiration and innovation check out the video page of the Philadelphia Rube Goldberg Machine contest: http://rubegoldbergphilly.com/videos/

Students that are interested in pursuing the Philly Rube Goldberg contest, please let me know.”

Popping a balloon is a great final task for the Rube Goldberg because it accomplishes the goal of insuring enough force is generated by the device; it also insures that students get immediate feedback regarding their accomplishment - the balloon either pops or doesn’t and when it pops you know it! Fun and whimsy are inevitable as diverse materials crowd the classroom space and students learn about energy transfer and simple machines by the act of building and experimenting. In the process they discover and intuitively engage with many aspects of Newtonian physics: angles, mass, friction, gravity, potential and kinetic energy.

In addition to basic mechanics, students are encouraged to incorporate electricity and creative circuit design into their Rube Goldberg devices. In order to offer the students even more innovative ways to approach circuits and to connect the seventh grade chemistry unit to electricity, we use a lesson plan based on “squishy circuits” (http://courseweb.stthomas.edu/apthomas/SquishyCircuits/). Students make their own squishy circuit conducting and insulating dough. We discuss how the dough works and follow up with building series and parallel circuits. In this way, students have access to a broad range of tools, some very concrete and tactile (squishy dough), some more abstract (programmable Arduino circuit boards). The project prompt is fairly open-ended so that students can choose to engage at different levels of complexity and challenge. In this way, the lesson plan creates and environment for differentiated learning.

The days of final project demonstrations are filled with the ruckus and cacophony of total student engagement. Groans of despair mix with screams of delight as marbles do and don’t follow tracks, dominos defy gravity and sometimes, when the stars (and physical properties) align, balloons pop! Although a perfectly designed chain reaction and balloon pop is the goal, it is only a part of the grade. Students are assessed on their ability to know and describe the forms of energy as well as on their device’s design. Yet, there is nothing like the satisfaction of the final balloon pop and ensuing applause of your peers to provide satisfaction.

You can see some of our Rube Goldberg devices here: (https://drive.google.com/drive/u/0/folders/0ByU6K_eUXIcvb2hmeldHRHFsRWc).

Beyond the classroom, some of the students were inspired enough by the process to choose to enter the national Rube Goldberg Device contest. As our enthusiasm grew and the original contest site fell through, Friends’ Central became the host for the “First Annual Philadelphia Rube Goldberg Machine Contest” with entries from public and private middle and upper schools (http://rubegoldbergphilly.com).

A core group six middle school students made up the Rube Goldberg team for FCS. The device task was to erase a blackboard using at least twenty steps. As the contest date approached, more middle schoolers wanted to be included and offered their skills. In the end, many hands and ideas produced a wonderfully whimsical device with twenty two steps that included: a sailboat, coke and mentos, music, pink peeps, a funnel, a fan, a popping balloon, toy cars, a spring-loaded “Spring” flower, and a robotic car programmed to erase the blackboard (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=puCQ21hFbHY). The students were interviewed on local television (http://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/video/11230844-dozens-of-local-students-gearing-up-to-make-rube-goldberg-contraptions/). My room was covered in duct tape, confetti, string, wires, and coke. It was messy, wonderful, fun! (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m_FPOuL5kmk) We won a prize for “Most Innovative Step” and thrilled kids of all ages with noisy, coke-spraying, balloon popping, blackboard erasing, science.

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