Family STEM: Rube Goldberg Machines

By Lisa M. Blank, Oregon Coast STEM Hub

Now that many of us are home 24/7, are the dirty dishes piling up beyond control? Is the laundry everywhere? Perhaps a Rube Goldberg machine can help!

Example of a Rube Goldberg machine
Image from https://www.designboom.com/design/kyle-bean-jonathan-knowles-lauren-catten-complex-simplicities-rube-goldberg-machine-07-05-2017/

Rube Goldberg machines use a series of chain reactions to perform a simple task in the most ridiculously complicated way. In fact, the more complicated the better.

Rube Goldberg cartoon of a self-operating napkin

Why are these contraptions called Rube Goldberg machines? Because the idea began with a man named Rube Goldberg. He was an engineer turned cartoonist whose most famous cartoons chronicled “The Inventions of Professor Lucifer G. Butt.”

Image: Rube Goldberg comic
Wikimedia Commons

Today, Rube Goldberg machines are not just whimsical cartoon images, but are required projects in many engineering programs across the US and a growing national obsession. Learn more about Rube Goldberg and how he viewed his cartoons as social commentary.

To join in the fun and support your family in designing and building your own Rube Goldberg machine (and possibly picking up the laundry), follow the steps below.

INSPIRE

Spark your family’s interest in building a Rube Goldberg machine by sharing this video about someone who uses one to serve himself a piece of cake.

Challenge your family to watch the video a second time with an eye for the materials and strategies used.

Don’t be intimidated! Your family’s Rube Goldberg machine need not be as complex as The Cake Server. (Also, we don’t recommend using open flames in your design!) Check out these cool builds by young learners:

And these by elementary-aged learners:

IDENTIFY A PROBLEM

What will your machine do? As a team, decide what problem your family would like to solve. If this is a struggle, consider sharing some of the ideas below.

hand bell
  • Place dirty clothes in the hamper
  • Drop soap into a hand
  • Water a plant
  • Turn a light off/on
  • Fill a glass with water
  • Ring a bell

Image used under license from Shutterstock.com

Depending on the ages of your team members, you can set a minimum and/or maximum number of steps to solve the problem.

FUN FACT: In the national Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, engineering college students compete to design a machine that uses the most complex process to complete a simple task. Competing machines must be composed of a minimum of 20 steps and a maximum of 75, and they must complete their run in under two minutes. Teams are permitted to use no more than two air compressors, power cords, or water hoses. Elements of the machine may not travel beyond a 10-square-foot footprint, and machines can be no more than eight feet tall.

BUILD IT!

  1. Sketch out your machine before building it.
  2. Identify the materials you need. Here is a suggested material list from Tinkerlab.
  3. Start building! Test your designs as you go and make adjustments as necessary.
  4. If your team gets stuck, here are some Rube Goldberg techniques you can try:
(Image used under license from Shutterstock.com)
  • Auto-tilt
  • Trigger
  • Flip Switcher
  • Page Turner
  • Ball Riser
  • Small Nudge

See each technique in action

Image used under license from Shutterstock.com

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

Explore how Rube Goldberg machines demonstrate Newton’s Laws.

NEWTON’S LAWS

Newton's Cradle

First Law: An object at rest stays at rest. An object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. 

In other words, if an object is not moving, it will not start moving by itself. If an object is moving, it will not stop or change direction unless something pushes it.

Image used under license from Shutterstock.com


F = ma

Second Law: Force is equal to the change in momentum with a change in time. 

In other words, objects will move farther and faster when they are pushed harder.

Image used under license from Shutterstock.com


Example of Newton's Third Law

Third Law: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. 

In other words, when an object is pushed in one direction, there is always resistance of the same size in the opposite direction.

Image used under license from Shutterstock.com

To learn more visit:


Challenge your family to find examples in your team’s machine that demonstrate each of Newton’s Laws.

For example, let’s take Newton’s Third Law: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In the video below, how can you use Newton’s Third Law to explain why the dominoes failed to fall in certain places?

Answer: Without an action or force, there can be no reaction.

CELEBRATE AND SHARE

1. Make a video of your creation and share it on the Oregon Coast STEM Facebook Page, or email OregonCoastSTEM@oregonstate.edu a YouTube or Vimeo video (set to Public view). We can’t wait to see it!

2. Is your family tired of washing their hands? Give it a new twist by joining the Rube Goldberg Bar of Soap Video Challenge. Submit your video by May 31!

GOING FURTHER

Career Connections
Building a Rube Goldberg machine uses many of the same skill sets as a mechanical engineer. Most of the products in your life have been touched in some way by a mechanical engineer, from your shampoo bottles and microwave to your family’s car. If you enjoyed this challenge, check out the links below to learn more about a career in mechanical engineering:
* Educating Engineers
* OSU SMILE Mechanical Engineering Project

Real-World Connections
What problems have emerged in your recent daily life that could be enhanced by a silly Rube Goldberg solution? Tackle a challenge that is relevant to a current situation, such as:

  • Turning on and off the sink faucet without touching the handle, or 
  • Delivering something to someone quarantined in another room

Lisa M. Blank is the Director of the Oregon Coast STEM Hub.

The 2020 Family STEM series is brought to you by the Oregon Coast STEM Hub and its partners as part of its Let’s Keep Learning! Initiative. You can find more resources, live events, and lessons on our website: https://oregoncoaststem.oregonstate.edu/

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