In 1990, I created a 14-step machine that, after 2 minutes of toppling dominoes, cascading marbles, and straws sliding down makeshift zip lines, popped a balloon. Inspired by the cartoonist Rube Goldberg, I entered my machine into the Ingenuity Challenge 300, a science & technology competition held to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Schenectady, NY, the town where I grew up. I remember the excitement when I finally got all of the carefully engineered steps to work… and the thrill of winning 4th place in the county-wide for my balloon-popping device.
Over twenty years later, the Rube Goldberg project has become an integral part of my teaching, serving as a culminating assessment for my 8th grade physics unit. Students apply their understanding of Newtonian physics to create 8 or more step machines that include 5 or more different simple machines. After presenting their finished machines to their families and younger students, my 8th graders engage in a detailed written analysis of their machines and a reflection on the engineering process. I find this project to be particularly powerful for how it pushes students to not only apply content knowledge but also to think critically, problem solve, and work collaboratively.
Students presented their machines just yesterday (my classroom is filled with K’NEX towers, marble ramps, dominoes, and Lego contraptions – all to accomplish tasks like pulling a tissue from a tissue box, stirring a glass of lemonade, or ringing a bell). To share some of my successes with this project, I’m posting the lesson plans and student materials that I use to guide students through the construction process. The downloadable materials include a rubric to assess student work and ideas for how to best implement the process in your classroom.
As a new feature on The Science Guru blog, I’m also posing a video from my classroom in which I share tips on implementing the project with your students. Please share your successes and challenges – post a comment, send me an email, or post your own video response. Good luck and happy engineering!