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String, Tubes, and Popsicle Sticks: Students Get Hands on with Rube Goldberg Machines


Sept. 28, 2022  — “Fail early and often,” teacher Danny Ward said on a recent morning in the Gilder Center, as her engineering physics students put the final touches on their class projects: Rube Goldberg machines.

Named for the late Pulitzer Prize-winning American cartoonist, inventor, and pop icon, a Rube Goldberg machine “solves a simple problem in the most ridiculously inefficient way possible,” according to the Rube Goldberg Institute for Innovation and Creativity

Goldberg also happens to be the only person whose name is an adjective in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, defined as “a comically involved, complicated invention, laboriously contrived to perform a simple operation.”

Ward’s students understood the assignment. 

Tasked with creating machines using at least four of the six “simple machines” (lever, wheel and axle, inclined plane, screw, pulley, and wedge), small groups of students went to work using tubing, string, cardboard, tape, wood, popsicle sticks, foam padding, dominoes, and other materials available in the Guild Fabrication Laboratory, or “Fab Lab.” 

Students demonstrate their Rube Goldberg machines in the Gilder Center.

“I purposely wanted to force them into the building and the doing early on,” Ward said. “I didn’t want to get lost in the math and the theory. That’s all important, but my focus in this class is in the doing. I think a lot of students learn best by doing.”

And by failing — and trying again.

“I can tell them till I’m blue in the face all about fail safes and the importance of making sure you’ve got redundancies in the system, but it’s not until they’re actually doing it that they see how to make it better,” Ward said “This is how they learn — through controlled failure.”

But even before the construction — and the trial and error — could begin, students had a crucial decision to make.

“They had to come up with a purpose for their machine,” Ward said. “Why does it exist? What’s its goal in life?”

One group’s machine was designed to score a goal with a tiny soccer ball after a complicated series of actions set in motion by a spring knocking over a row of dominoes. Another machine used pulleys and a golf ball to hit a piece of wood and pitch a crumpled ball of paper into a recycling bin.

A third machine’s purpose was a little different, explained Djibril Diaw ’23 and Cassandra Tung ’23.

“We have two characters that are played by rubber balls — the mother and the child,” Diaw said. “The child gets lost at the carnival and has to go through all of these obstacles and little detours to find its way back to the mother.”

“And this child sees their mother from the Ferris Wheel, elevated and high above, and they find their mom,” Tung said. 

After some trial and error, students showed off their machines. While some machines still needed a little nudge at certain points to complete their tasks, the crumpled paper ball made it into the recycling bin, a soccer goal was scored, and when the “mother” and “child” rubber balls were reunited, the whole class cheered and clapped.


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