Machine-Building Tests Students’ Ingenuity

Junior high science teacher Lauren Welsh loves to kick off the school year with a bang. Her special project requires students to use ingenuity, teamwork, and problem solving to create a complex machine that will perform a simple task, such as pouring water, popping a balloon, or ringing a bell. It’s called a Rube Goldberg Machine, and it is something all seventh and eighth graders at Cardinal Pacelli are challenged to design during the first week of school.

The process of creating a Rube Goldberg Machine compels students to work through the Engineering Design Process. They use everyday materials like dominoes, toy cars, magnets, rubber bands, tinker toys and Lego blocks to build a machine that will successfully complete a task of their choosing. The machine must have at least five steps that involve energy transfer, fit on a table, and be able to stand alone. After a period of user-testing, students are invited to demonstrate their contraption, and then complete a written evaluation. “I love watching students brainstorm solutions when their machine isn’t performing as expected,” said Welsh.

Eighth graders Ben G. and Cecily H. used gravity and a series of pathways to cause a toy car to pop a water balloon. Cecily said the biggest challenge was to problem-solve. “If something went wrong, we had to figure out how to fix it.”