Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Rube Goldberg

Later today, I'll be taking my Crazy Contraptions class into my daughters' school for their independent project day. It's basically an extension of the Rube Goldberg project I used to do with my 8th Grade physical science class.


Rube Goldberg machines are basically contraptions that do in many, many steps what any reasonable person could do in one simple step. They are named for an American cartoonist (and engineer and sculptor), Rube Goldberg, who published drawings of these crazy devices while working at a San Francisco newspaper. He went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his work.

Why did he draw these machines? Goldberg is quoted as saying his cartoons are a "symbol of man's capacity for exerting maximum effort to achieve minimal results." In other words, he thought people simply liked to do things the hard way, and if technology was involved, all the better.

Each year Purdue University hosts a Rube Goldberg Machine Contest for high school and college level students. It has become so popular that winners appear on national T.V. shows like Good Morning America and Late Night With David Letterman.

The cool thing about these machines is that they are awesome ways to explore engineering, physics and art. I like to build in a lesson on simple machines. After reviewing wedges, inclined planes, levers, screws, wheels and axels and pulleys, challenging students to create a complex machine a la Rube Goldberg with as many simple machines included as they can manage is really fun. The task can be made as formal or informal as desired. For my Crazy Contraptions class, students 4th grade and up can usually create a 3-5 step machine with a simple goal in 2 hours, using toys and junk from around the house. For a more formal class, select a harder task (watering a plant), require more steps, limit material choices, expand materials choices or require that all the simple machines be included (or that all of Newton's Laws of Motion be demonstrated).

So, I encourage everyone to get out there and build some crazy machines. It's fun! And it's science! As we part, please enjoy this inspiration.

If you're a MythBusters fan (and who isn't) you may also enjoy their Christmas themed machine. And when you start feeling down because your machine isn't working just as you planned, watch this Honda ad, The Cog. It took 605 tries to get this one good take!

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