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Rube! A Physics and Creativity Challenge


Humans spend a lot of time and effort simplifying processes, making tasks more efficient, and finding better ways to get things done. The ultimate goal of innovation, after all, is to make life better, easier, and more fulfilling. In a stark contrast to this goal, Rube Goldberg’s whimsical and complicated designs brought humor and fun to engineering and physics, appealing to learners of all ages.

Goldberg was an engineer and cartoonist whose drawings and inventions have inspired generations of students to create chains of simple machines as complicated solutions to simple tasks. Learners of all ages can develop skills in physics, engineering, math, and art by designing and building their own creative contraptions.

Teachers and parents looking to incorporate STEM learning can look to Rube Goldberg for an easy-to-implement, low cost source of discovery learning. By challenging your students to come up with off-the-wall solutions to simple problems, you will be cleverly disguising major critical thinking and creative problem solving as FUN! Younger learners will gain a better understanding of simple machines and how they make it easier to get work done. Older learners will be able to connect the hands-on building and problem solving to the abstract equations for work and mechanical advantage they so diligently studied in their physics classes. Math and physics DO actually exist outside of the classroom, and the subjects can be used beyond the next problem set or quiz! The following activities would be great for summer learning at home or as an in-class unit.

Games Machines Play is an activity from PBS Scientific American Frontiers. It is aimed towards grades 4-7, but could easily be adapted to younger or older students to meet your needs. The activity gives students a chance to research the cartoons of Rube Goldberg cartoons and challenges them to use their new knowledge to create and present their own Rube Goldberg contraptions in class.

TeachEngineering’s Design and Build a Rube Goldberg for grades 7-9 is part of a larger engineering unit on machines. In a few hours, students brainstorm ideas and design and build original Rube Goldberg contraptions to complete a simple task. This is a nice activity for younger students as well, although they would probably skip the more complicated physics equations.

Another middle school activity, Net Force and Rube Goldberg is a nice way to pack in the benefits of designing and building machines into a short period of time. There are some good background links you will want to check out also.

If you like the idea of integrating a Rube Goldberg activity into your home or classroom but you haven’t done much background on simple machines, try a resource like this second grade Simple Machines lesson. There are plenty more options on the Gateway. Type “simple machines” into the search bar to find the right one for you. Before they start building, kids can virtually experiment with how to connect and adjust the levers in pulleys in their contraptions with the online game Levers and Pulleys from the University of California, Berkeley.

These resources challenge students to build their own original creations. Once they put their hearts into building, many of them might want to show off their project and even compete with others. Parents of “bored” kids on summer vacation and teachers planning for next year can organize neighborhood or school-wide Rube Goldberg machine contests. If you are planning to do a contest, be sure to check out the national competition outlined on the official Rube Goldberg site, because your students may want to work up to creating an entry for that. Even kids who are too young to compete nationally can follow the rules and challenges of the contest and compete in a smaller setting.

I am working on starting a neighborhood Rube Goldberg contest this month that I will hopefully be able to adapt to a school-wide contest in the future. I am basing the contest on the national competition, but I will include students from kindergarten through high school. I will keep you updated on how it goes, and post information and pictures on our Facebook and Twitter pages. We hope to see you there. Happy creating!