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What would Rube Goldberg do?

By Anne Stevenson

If Rube read the Next Generation Science Standards' 8 Practices for Science and Engineering, he might first let out a quiet cheer, then get back to designing the next step in a complicated machine that would zip a zipper or hammer a nail.

A Rube Goldberg Machine (RGM), is an overly complicated machine that performs a simple task, usually through a chain reaction. Building an RGM is a great activity for young people who want to learn the principles of physics.

Named after a Pulitzer-Prize winning 20th century cartoonist, (who was also an engineer), RGMs are a whimsical mix of engineering principles and creative design. They are made of common materials you'd find around your home or garage. You can spend hours watching them on Youtube, from a simple machine to pour milk on your cereal, to more complex contraptions, to commercials for toys that inspire girls to be engineers.

Beyond being great entertainment, creating a RGM takes engineering design skills. RGMs use numerous variations of the six simple machines, among them pulleys, levers and inclined planes. RGM builders usually work in teams, thinking creatively, using principles of physics, mathematics, and the engineering design process to come up with a machine that solves the problem.

This year, Minnesota 4-H is launching the Engineering Design Challenge: Build a Rube Goldberg Machine. It's open to Minnesota third- to eighth-graders. Teams of 3-10, supported by adult volunteer leaders, are invited to develop their own RGMs that will zip a zipper and show them at their county fairs this summer, and the Minnesota State Fair in late August.

As an integral part of this challenge, each team will do online journaling, chat with the other teams across the state about their progress and create a portfolio of their learning experience. They'll be coached by University of Minnesota engineering students. These students and adult volunteers will be trained by Extension STEM faculty, including me.

For those wondering how to best guide an engineering design experience such as a RGM team, check out this short tutorial..

An essential goal in all STEM programming is to engage youth in the eight practices of science and engineering (one phase of the Next Generation Science Standards), which mirror the practices of professional scientists and engineers. Through intentional program design, we can create youth learning experiences that build one or more of the eight practices of science and engineering:
  1. Asking questions and defining problems
  2. Developing and using models
  3. Planning and carrying out investigations
  4. Analyzing and interpreting data
  5. Using mathematics and computational thinking
  6. Constructing explanations and designing solutions
  7. Engaging in argument from evidence
  8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information
Youth programs offering STEM learning opportunities in the out-of-school time (OST) hours are essential partners in the effort to reach the goals of the Next Generation Science Standards. STEM programs can address disparities in education, the development of 21st century skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, and technological literacy, help young people explore potential career pathways, and support workforce preparedness.

Have you ever seen one of these competitions, and been inspired to get young people involved in engineering design? Are you engaging young people in the 8 practices of science and engineering? How? What are the needs or barriers you see?

Anne Stevenson, Extension educator and Extension professor

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  1. I think one of the challenges of activities like this is the frustration that may develop as a group works to design something.
    It is necessary to show resiliency to fix your machine rather than being frustrated by failed runs of the machine caused by a ball that won't drop in the same place consistently or a rubber band that begins to wear out.
    What tips can be used by coaches of teams to remain positive when facing frustrations?

  2. Mark, you raise a great point about how to help youth work through frustrations and failed runs. Many of us adults want to jump in and help, or "fix" those frustrating experiences, which of course we know we can't do...we know youth learn through those experiences. I wonder if these times are opportunities for the coaches to pull the team in for problem solving and really seeking ideas from each individual? another suggestion is to watch a few youtube videos of RG machines and notice how many of those videos will tell you the # of runs/trials it took to get it to work...One video I watched had text that said "Run finally worked!" Those helped me realize the creators are trying it over and over and over....What do others think about tips for coaches in the face of challenge?? How do we help instill perseverance in young people?


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