Rube Goldberg STEM Eighth Grade Project

Rube Goldberg STEM Eighth Grade Project: When Failure is not an Option
When failure is not an option!Before this STEM project, the name Rube Goldberg was unfamiliar to most of us at CTMS. The  STEM project in Christina William’s eighth grade classroom during the third quarter made the name Rube Goldberg synonymous with science, teamwork, persistence, fun and success. Just a bit of research will tell you that Rube Goldberg (short for Rueben Garret Lucius Goldberg 1883 - 1970) was an American cartoonist, sculptor, author, engineer and inventor who gained notoriety from cartoons that featured complicated gadgets operating in convoluted chain reactions to perform very simple tasks.

Williams first experience with creating a Rube Goldberg machine was in a high school Physics class. “We had to work with a team,” she remembers, “to build something from our own imaginations that was complex, authentic, and inevitably successful but only after many hours of trials and tribulations.” Wanting her students to have just such an experience, and searching for the perfect STEM project, she laid out the lesson plans. A fellow teacher from the Notre Dame STEM program introduced her to an engineering plan that Williams was able to adapt to her eighth grade students. Their first lessons introduced each of the six simple machines; how they make work easier by increasing the mechanical advantage. This foundation made it possible for them to build more complex, or Rube Goldberg, machines.

Students began the trial-and-error process with enthusiasm, making Rube Goldberg machines from found objects. A popsicle stick became a lever. A plastic spoon became a catapult. A small toy dinosaur became a weight. A balloon gave forward motion and straws and string became a lift. Some students found it difficult to take ideas from cartoons and video games and make them work in the tangible real world.Others struggled most just to be imaginative.  One of the participating students, Ximena Perez, said she learned a lot about science, simple machines and “how to build things out of nothing”. Isabell Osalde’s group didn’t know how to make their car go down a particular ramp. “We tried ideas that didn’t work,” then she added, “after we kept failing we used a catapult that was being held by a dinosaur.”

Many, many hours in and out of school were spent adjusting Rube Goldberg projects. Students' original enthusiasm dwindled to exasperation. Williams invited other staff members to get involved and help encourage students’ progress. Their assignment: keep students in control  without experiencing so much defeat they’re not willing to try anymore. There were unpredictable magic moments when something worked and hopes raised again. “We could not find ways to raise our flag,” said Erardo Gonzalez, “We kept failing every single time, until one finally worked.” Andres Flores recalled “the elephant wouldn’t pull up the marbles so we built a taller tower and used less marbles.” One trial run was caught on video when a pull-back car rolled down a ramp, fell into a cup, which caused a series of pipes to slowly lean toward the ground, and raise their flag. Everybody cheered!

Nataleah Munoz said, “We had a screw-type slide that a ball would go down and always land in a different direction. We would always try to fix it and it wouldn’t work. Before giving up, we gave it walls and to control the ball and, eventually, it worked.” Students would round up in their teams to test and revise and retest over and over again. “When a member of my team made a thing to throw the ball it didn’t work,” said Allan Seguro, “then we used a ramp and it worked.” 

The unpredicted longevity of the project seemed to last far past anyone’s expectation. It needed closure, so a day for judging was scheduled and new vigor went into final preparations. Teams took their place behind their machines with names like Hole in One, Jurassic Park, and Take Life by the Horns. One of the judges, Judy Kennedy, said, “I’m not sure they recognized it as competition with the other projects...They were most focused on making their own projects work.“ Team members understood - this was not a test. Either it worked or it didn’t. They had three tries.

Another judge, Meg Padilla, said, “Not all of the machines worked on the first attempt. I observed students’ who collaborated quickly to correct their machines.” Then she added, “This group of students left a lasting impression on me regarding the importance of creativity, failure, multiple iterations, collaboration, and reflection...It was evident that the greatest amount of learning was during the process of creating these machines”. Reflecting on the whole experience, Williams said, “That euphoric feeling of achievement cannot be explained to someone; it truly has to be experienced.” Now that experience has been successfully passed on to her students.