Making a Rube Goldberg Setup in the Classroom
February 6, 2014 5:17 AM   Subscribe

I want to create a Rube Goldberg machine (or something like it) with my students. I am not the best at teaching hands-on stuff/doing experiments and things that involve design, so I am looking for help and suggestions.

I teach grade 5 boys at a really tough school (major behavioural issues) where English is not the first language. My students learn Science in English so I use a lot of videos and games to keep them interested because the language barrier is particularly hard to deal with in Science. As part of a discussion of motion and continuous movement, I showed them the music video for This Too Shall Pass by OK Go. They really liked the video and while I was caught up in their excitement, I said we could try to do something like that in class, though obviously on a much smaller scale.

And now I have no idea what I am supposed to do. One boy is bringing in dominoes, another is bringing in some cardboard tubing, some of them are bringing in toy cars, etc. What kinds of things should I bring in that might be helpful in putting something mildly entertaining together? I am willing to spend a little money to get supplies. Assume I have no supplies at school.

Any tips for making something that will relate to motion/energy/movement? Really, any information or suggestions will help. I'm worried that this will just turn out to be a huge waste of time.

Thank you.
posted by gursky to Education (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
PythagoraSwitch might give you some ideas (videos are on YouTube, but I'm at work)
posted by sukeban at 5:36 AM on February 6, 2014

How many kids do you have? The easiest way to do this is to break it into stages and have a pair of kids work on each stage. Have every pair build their thing and test it until it works every time and they're experts at re-setting it. Then everyone shows the class their section and you look at

(a) how does the section start? (tapped by finger, string pulled, whatever)

(b) how does it end? (domino flies out tube, car rolls somewhere...)

This is where you talk about energy that was put in (finger), what came out, and where the difference went (friction, elevation gain) or came from (potential energy loaded in ahead of time somewhere)

That's at least several hours of work, and could easily be a week worth of 1-hour chunks.

Then either you, or all of you together, look at the chunks you've got and look for ways to connect them. Some will easily connect end to end but since many will start high and end low you will need more chunks created to link them together (or you will need to build everything on a flight of stairs).

So the next activity is to build the connecting blocks. If there are more teams than projects, those teams look at the start or end of the chain and build things that will connect there.

You have to get the OK Go thing out of your head, though. I've had college students work on Rube Goldberg machines for a week and seen only sadness come out. That video was set up by a cast of (very talented and experienced) thousands, it can't be anywhere near your expectations.
posted by range at 5:41 AM on February 6, 2014

range: I have one class of 20 and another class of 21. Attendance is spotty at best so I expect around 14-15 kids in each class for this. Having them work in pairs is probably not going to happen (plenty of violent kids; we tend to do most things as a big group so I can monitor everyone's behaviour). I'm not expecting the OK Go thing at all and I told them ours would probably be very, very short but if we manage to get 2 or 3 steps in, I think we'd all be happy! Great advice and suggestions, thanks very much!
posted by gursky at 5:44 AM on February 6, 2014

Having the finisher be something dramatic and fun is key (I think), so that when it finally gets there and the rub goldberg finally works, it is extra awesome. Something like a magnet-released Diet Coke and Mentos reaction, or Elephant toothpaste (the end action could dump the yeast mixture in to the bottle somehow..?). Even a baking soda and vinegar reaction could be fun. Something a little bit messy (but controlled messy) or loud (popping balloon?) is always a hit with kids everyone I find, and if that was the pay off for getting their Rube Goldberg to work... I think that would be great.

Also, establish at the beginning with the class how many steps you are going to make, and keep it conservative. That way they don't get overly ambitious and then get in over their heads and don't finish it. if they do, say, 5 steps the first time, maybe doing a longer one later on would be an option. Or building on to the existing one.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 5:51 AM on February 6, 2014

I like PuppetMcSockerson's Diet coke/Mentos or baking soda/yeast thoughts; would it be possible to do this project outside (like on a playground blacktop), where mess wouldn't matter as much? 'Cause every kid I've ever known would love that kind of finale....
posted by easily confused at 6:24 AM on February 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

There is no one thing in a Rube Goldberg machine that 20 students can work on without 15 of them being bored with their hands in their pockets (or, it sounds like from your description, in each other's). They could in theory all set up an enormous domino chain, in which case I would bring chunks of 2x4 to use as stops between kids, so 1 kid can't accidentally or on purpose knock down everyone's work. I understand that I am not there and I trust your assessment but from the outside, it doesn't sound like your conditions can be satisfied unless you build and they watch, and you yell all the time because they're not paying attention.

It's probably not the time to think about stuff like this, but I'll relay something a friend told me (he teaches general science and does lots and lots of hands on stuff in one of the roughest high schools in Boston). He said that his experience was that partway didn't work - having 17 jobs for 20 kids was just as bad as no jobs for 20 kids, because it only took one or two bored kids to wreck the room. So he started finding projects that had 40 jobs for 20 kids, so everyone had an assignment, and anyone who started losing interest could be handed a new assignment. So for instance he would never have two kids collaborate on one paper airplane; that way lies madness. But two kids who need to make twenty paper airplanes were suddenly cool.
posted by range at 7:11 AM on February 6, 2014

I didn't look at these but it looks like there are some ideas on youtube.
Looks like there are some things on Instructables too.
posted by BoscosMom at 7:52 AM on February 6, 2014

Did you see this?
posted by BoscosMom at 8:01 AM on February 6, 2014

Oh! And this: The app. (and thanks for pushing me down that rabbit hole....)
posted by BoscosMom at 8:06 AM on February 6, 2014

Design the necessary parts first, then add all the extra special effects stuff afterwards.
posted by ostranenie at 8:18 PM on February 7, 2014

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