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NGSS: Core Idea: PS3.C

CCSS: Reading Informational Text: 3

TEKS: Science: 3.2A, 4.2A, 5.2A, 6.2A, 3.6B, 4.6D, 5.6D, 6.8E; ELA: 3.13, 4.11, 5.11, 6.10

One Crazy Device

Who can build the most ridiculous step-by-step machine?

A boot kicks a bowling ball, rolling it down a ramp. The ball knocks over a bowling pin, tugging a rope that swings open a birdcage. More objects bump, crash, and roll, one after another. Finally, a weight drops on a scale, lifting a hand that flips a light switch. Ta-da! 

Sound complicated? That’s the point. This wacky device is a Rube Goldberg machine. That’s a contraption engineered to perform a simple task—like flipping a light switch—in a ridiculously complicated way. And every spring, thousands of students compete to build the best ones in Rube Goldberg Machine Contests, held online and at sites around the country.

At Cornerstone Christian Academy in Willoughby, Ohio, two teams of middle school students enter the online contest every year. Seventh-grader Mia Cocca is on one of them. In 2016, her team built a machine that took 45 steps to open an umbrella! They carefully designed every step. “There are so many things you have to get right,” says Mia. 

A boot kicks a bowling ball. It rolls down a ramp. The ball knocks over a bowling pin. The pin tugs a rope. That swings open a birdcage. More objects bump, crash, and roll, one after another. Finally, a weight falls on a scale. That makes a hand rise and flip on a light switch. Ta-da! 

Sound complicated? That’s the point. This wacky device is a Rube Goldberg machine. This type of gadget is built to perform a simple task, like flipping a light switch. But it does the task in a very complicated way. Rube Goldberg Machine Contests are held online and at sites around the country every spring. Thousands of students compete to build the best ones.

Seventh-grader Mia Cocca is on a team that enters the contest every year. Mia goes to Cornerstone Christian Academy in Willoughby, Ohio. In 2016, her team built a machine that took 45 steps to open an umbrella! They carefully designed every step. “There are so many things you have to get right,” says Mia. 

Oddball Inventions

Rube Goldberg was an engineer and cartoonist who drew goofy inventions. He illustrated chain reactions using everyday objects to perform tasks like opening an umbrella. Goldberg died in 1970, but people continue to build machines inspired by his drawings. 

Most of these contraptions rely on simple machines, such as pulleys, levers, and ramps. These machines use physical principles to make work easier. Pulleys, for example, can help lift something too heavy to move another way. 

Rube Goldberg machine makers link simple devices into elaborate compound machines. “It’s amazing what these kids come up with,” says Kathleen Felix of Rube Goldberg Inc., which runs the contests.

Rube Goldberg was an engineer. But he was also a cartoonist. He drew goofy inventions. His drawings showed everyday objects being used in a chain reaction. The reaction performed a task, like opening an umbrella. Goldberg died in 1970. But people continue to build machines inspired by his drawings. 

Most of these devices rely on simple machines. Those include pulleys, levers, and ramps. These machines make work easier. For example, pulleys can help lift something too heavy to move another way. 

Rube Goldberg machine makers link simple devices together. They form complex compound machines. “It’s amazing what these kids come up with,” says Kathleen Felix. She works at Rube Goldberg Inc. It runs the contests.

MARK LOPEZ/ARGONNE NATIONAL LABORATORY (RUBE GOLDBERG CONTEST); RUBE GOLDBERG MACHINE™ AND RUBE GOLDBERG MACHINE CONTEST® ARE TRADEMARKS OF RUBE GOLDBERG INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Students adjust their Rube Goldberg machine at a contest in Argonne, Illinois.

Recipe for Success

What makes a winning machine? First, it should be creative, says Regan Couch. She’s on a Rube Goldberg machine team at Purdue University in Indiana. They start brainstorming months before the college-level contest.

A contraption should also work without any assistance from people, says Couch. To make sure that happens, teams need to fine-tune each step.

Simple machines help control the forces in each part of a contraption. A ball rolling down a ramp speeds up. A lever can turn a downward push from the ball into an upward push on another object. 

One of Couch’s favorite tools is a mousetrap. This spring-loaded device stores energy. When it snaps, it releases the energy, setting another object in motion.

What makes a winning machine? First, it should be creative, says Regan Couch. She’s on a Rube Goldberg machine team at Purdue University in Indiana. They start brainstorming months before the college-level contest.

A machine should also work without any help from people, says Couch. Teams need to fine-tune each step to make sure that happens.

Simple machines help control the forces in each part of a machine. A ball rolling down a ramp speeds up. A lever can turn a downward push from the ball into an upward push on another object. 

One of Couch’s favorite tools is a mousetrap. This spring-loaded device stores energy. It releases the energy when it snaps closed. That sets another object in motion.

Step by Step

Making a Rube Goldberg machine takes dedication. Mia’s team worked on their umbrella-opening machine every day over spring break. 

Mia worked on one step where a tennis ball needed to roll down three ramps in a row. But the ball kept bouncing off, stopping the machine. Mia spent four days adjusting the ramps to get the ball rolling just right. “You have to have a lot of patience,” she says. 

Finally, it was time to run the machine for the contest. With cameras rolling, a student released a stuffed seagull that zipped down a cable to start the machine. Mia’s team watched as objects rolled and flipped one by one. As a final platform fell away, the umbrella opened. The students cheered—the machine worked! 

Mia’s team won first place in their age group. But they aren’t resting easy. They’re hard at work on their machine for this year’s contest: a contraption for applying a Band-Aid.

Making a Rube Goldberg machine takes hard work. Mia’s team worked on their umbrella-opening machine every day over spring break. 

One step involved a tennis ball. It needed to roll down three ramps in a row. But the ball kept bouncing off. That stopped the machine. Mia spent four days adjusting the ramps to get the ball rolling just right. “You have to have a lot of patience,” she says. 

Finally, it was time to run the machine for the contest. Cameras were rolling. A student released a stuffed seagull. It zipped down a cable to start the machine. Mia’s team watched as objects rolled and flipped one by one. The umbrella opened as a final platform fell away. The students cheered. The machine worked! 

Mia’s team won first place in their age group. But they aren’t resting easy. They’re hard at work on their machine for this year’s contest. It’s a device for applying a Band-Aid!

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