Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Inspire the Creative Process with Rube Goldberg Machines

I am always looking for opportunities for the students in my Design Thinking elective to exercise what they have learned in "real world" environments.  This time last year they were busy working on their entries for the Verizon App Challenge. Unfortunately that competition ended before we left for the winter break so that left a wide open gap in my January curriculum.

For most of the winter break, I restlessly relaxed knowing I needed a plan for January. My teaching partner was not returning due to many mutual agreements so I was alone in my planning.  

One of the best things about our use of technology in 2014 is it allows teachers to collaborate outside of the four walls of our classrooms.  I know this may have never happened to you, but sometimes, we cannot stand the people we have to work with and collaborating seems next to impossible.  Blogs, Twitter, Feedly, Google Alerts, LiveBinders, YouTube, Teaching Channel and a thousand more platforms allow us to find the people who share our visions and many times extend our thinking.

Just days before returning to school for the Spring Semester and still floundering with what I wanted to do with the 64 students in my 7th period class, I happened to find the Rube Goldberg home page. I have been fascinated with Rube Goldberg machines for years but all of the competitions have been geared for high school and college teams.  (Though they now offer an online competition for middle school students.  You bet I will be putting teams together for 2015!)

The Goldbergian concepts of cause and effect, iteration, design, testing, retesting and the need for students to fail faster in order to be successful met with the objectives for my class.  After a quick Google search I found the foundation of what I wanted to do in class for the first few weeks of the Spring Semester.

Debbie Clark, an 8th grade teacher in Wilmette, Illinois, had a video on the Teaching Channel that explained her process and the end result.  Using her ideas as a baseline I began building my timeline.  

Day One:

Students came to class and I shared this document that I put together using images from the Rube Goldberg website.  I let them discuss and talk about what they noticed in the pictures.  I could tell that they were confused by the pictures because stunned silent reading led to escalating discussions about why would someone even design such a completed machine.  After a few minutes I had each group share out their general observations.

I then put together a collection of Rube Goldberg machines from the Rube Goldberg website library The students watched the videos for the rest of class, blown away by how complex these machines can be and how cool it is when all of these steps come together to complete an impossibly easy task.

Rube Goldberg Playlist to Show Your Class

Day Two:

Using a combination of the work from Debbie Clark, PBS and the Rube Goldberg Rule Book I created a design document for the students to use to guide them through their building.  Students spent the rest of the class period deciding what task they wanted to accomplish, what supplies they would need and what to bring from home.

For the design document I gave my students, I mixed the ideas I found from these three documents:




Day Three and Beyond:

Students began to build, test and negotiate the frustration of setting up rows of domino's only to have a stray hand knock them all down.  Days of exasperated sighs began to give way to small whoops of success and celebrations that the ball hanging from the ceiling finally hit the cardboard which launched the car.  Each minor success led to the group gaining more and more momentum, until each step ran efficiently, the random glitches of failure slowly designed out of the machinery.

There was a conversation about how to drill safely before and after this photo was taken.
 Final Day:  Design Show

On the final day students set up their machines and evaluated each other.  Each team was allowed to run their machine three times and only the two best scores were kept. I graded them based on mashing together rubrics from the sites I mentioned earlier. This is rather open ended because I think you would want to use these sources as guides to help you in designing a rubric that fits your students needs.

One of the best machines was titled Wrecking Bell.  Here is a description of the steps and a video of the final product.

Wrecking Bell Steps:

1. After furiously smashing the table, vibrations will cause the cart to fall down the roller coaster.

2. The cart then smashes into the wrecking ball and causes it to fall.

3. The force of the falling wrecking ball then hits the “building.”

4. The “building” collapses onto a seesaw that lets out 5 marbles.

5. The marbles fall into a pulley system.

6. The weight of the marbles pulls the pulley down and rings the bell directly under it.


No project, no matter how hard a teacher tries, is going to be every students most favorite thing to do. I have found that if the parameters are focused but the process is open ended then a high percentage of students are going to engage in the work at a meaningful level. 

Here's what I noticed about the timeline I mixed together from the many sites I visited:

  • The videos and pictures on day one pushed their interest through the roof.
  • Being able to choose the final task and design their own contraptions and use their own materials helped in giving them the autonomy needed to persevere when things were not going well.
  • Then, having a real audience and a chance to see other's work helped them to self-evaluate and make revisions during the whole process.
I still had a couple of students who wanted to get on their phones and watch One Direction videos or play an app but those students have been disengaged in all of their classes and seem to be in my class because they don't want to do the work that would be involved in participating in band or orchestra or contest math or choir or art.  

That being said, a Rube Goldberg machine unit is a great way for students to practice some real world skills:  collaboration, using their imagination, developing critical and creative thinking skills, showing initiative, practicing resilience, and adapting to unexpected challenges.