I have distinct memories of the elementary school projects that enthralled me: In first grade it was writing my very own Mallard Duck research report, in third grade it was constructing a miniature version of my town out of household items for the science fair, and in fifth grade it was our simple machines project. This last project had me completely obsessed. The goal was to find a way to transport Stuart Little’s birthday present across the room. After weeks of learning about pulleys, inclined planes, levers, and screws, this was the finale: a chance to combine everything we’d learned and actually make something.
And so I sprawled out on my living room floor, duct tape in hand, piecing together toilet paper tubes and Lincoln Logs until I had something that resembled a mouse-sized-present-moving-contraption.
This was my first introduction to Rube Goldberg Machines, named after the cartoonist who popularized these wacky contraptions. To define them, Rube Goldberg Machines are needlessly complex contraptions that work like a chain reaction to complete a simple task.
Examples of them frequently pop up in TV commercials, movies, and YouTube. Some of the most popular machines, like OK Go’s music video, have garnered over 63 million views, and involve swinging buckets of paint and smashing televisions (you’ve got to watch it). On the less extreme end, flipping through the pages of a “Rube Goldberg Machine” YouTube search will unearth videos of kids with machines not so different than my 5th grade creation, haphazardly homemade for school assignments. I’ve put a couple of my favorites here with the disclaimer that they’re addicting and watching too many of them may lead to starting a toy company.
4 Ways Rube Goldberg Machines Teach STEM
While my Stuart Little themed invention was a spectacle of design, the execution was lacking (I had little guidance, but a lot of Elmer's Glue), so the gift-delivery-system worked only about half of the time. A chance at redemption came years later, however, in my AP Physics class. For our final project, the one that would serve as the culmination of my high school science experience, we were assigned to make a Rube Goldberg Machine. This time, we had tools, physics-know-how, and the power of group collaboration. Our goal: chop a carrot (or once we drew a face on it, decapitate a carrot). More advanced than my fifth grade project, my group’s machine included a lever that raised a candle to light a firework, which would then pull a string releasing an unnecessarily-large butcher knife.
At the core, though, they were the same assignment. These magically wacky contraptions can be adapted to fit a huge range of topics and age ranges, and teach real STEM concepts along the way.
Rube Goldberg Machines can be made with anything, but the core of mechanical movement stems from simple machines, a topic traditionally taught during K-5. After learning about these simple machines individually (pulleys, wheel and axle, inclined planes, levers, wedges, and screws), Rube Goldberg Machines can be an exciting way to combine the concepts into a system.
Cause and Effect
Rube Goldberg Machines are great for seeing cause and effect in action. If a heavier ball rolls into the pulley cup, what will happen? What if we make our lever longer? What if we lower the ramp's incline? Have kids make predictions about the effects of various changes, which can even lead into talking about independant and dependant variables.
I’m not talking about cars here: mechanics is the segment of physics that deals with forces and motion. Younger kids (K-3rd) can use simple Rube Goldberg Machines to visually understand pushing and pulling forces and test out how to combine them. Older kids (3rd-7th) can expand on this and begin to consider energy transfers in terms of kinetic, potential energy, and friction. In advanced classes, like my AP physics class, you can actually diagram out all of the forces and calculate the energy transfers, comparing your predictions to how the machine performs in real life.
The Engineering Design Process
I could (and plan to) write a whole post about the Engineering Design Process and its relevance to solving any sort of problem, STEM related or otherwise. It’s a process that helps engineers, kids, and anyone else who wants to solve a problem organize their ideas and explore solutions. It goes something like this:
Ask: Figure out what problem you want to solve
Brainstorm: Come up with ideas
Design: Make a Plan (Sketch it!)
Prototype: Build it!
Evaluate: Test it!
Refine: Make adjustments and try again. You can always start at the beginning again if you get stuck.
Share: Show someone else and get feedback!
A Rube Goldberg Machine presents the perfect, achievable problem to practice using this process. Begin with a question like, “How can we turn off the lights in 5 steps?” or “How can we turn off the lights from across the room,” or “How can we turn off the lights while including a pulley?”
3 Ways Rube Goldberg Machines Teach 21st Century Skills
While Rube Goldberg Machines clearly align with many of the NGSS standards, they can teach a broader set of 21st Century Skills that are just as important in problem solving.
These machines are tricky, rarely working on the first try. Kids have to troubleshoot their machines and practice flexibility as they pivot between potential solutions.
Simple machines are only part of it. Kids practice resourcefulness and divergent thinking as they scan their environment for items to repurpose in their machine. Apples become balls, spoons become launchers, and LEGOs become scaffolding.
Communication and Collaboration
While it’s possible to make a Rube Goldberg Machines solo, they are perfect collaborative projects. More people means more diversity of ideas and more hands to create, leading to longer, more exciting machines. And because of the finicky nature of them and the high number of design decisions, builders (kids!) must effectively communicate so that the machine flows the way they imagine.
As a fifth grader, Rube Goldberg Machines fascinated me because of the limitless possibilities and the feeling of being an inventor, a feeling I still chase today. As I chose my college major, I thought back on that project as one of the first concrete indications of my love of physics, engineering, and design, and I wondered why no one ever used those words when describing them. While Rube Goldberg Machines are not a new concept, our goal at Momentix Toys is to lower the barrier to entry of creating these contraptions-- so that kids (and adults) can focus on imagining and creating, not on trying to get the duct tape to stay on a homemade pencil-lever. Whether it’s with a Momentix Toys kit, objects from around the house, old toys, or a combination of all three, I hope parents, educators, and kids have a chance to explore the possibilities of these wonderfully wacky machines (or at least binge some Youtube Videos of them).