5 Rube Goldberg Lessons to Teach Engineering for High School or College Students

July 29th, 2015 by Deborah Fike

Last January, Peoy Kiong Ng at the School of Engineering at Ngee Ann Polytechnic in Singapore contacted me about free educational copies of Contraption Maker.  The school had been using The Incredible Machine since 2007 to teach a unit on Rube Goldberg machines, but the old version CD-ROM version of the game was no longer running on their newer computer systems. They needed an updated version of the game to continue their lesson plans.  We got them set up with Contraption Maker, and this spring, they ran 6 classes with 3 professors and 24 desktops each.

Students at Ngee Ann Polytechnic learn about Rube Goldberg Machines with Contraption Maker.

Students at Ngee Ann Polytechnic learn about Rube Goldberg Machines with Contraption Maker.

As part of the unit, students were introduced to the concept of Rube Goldberg machines.  They were then tasked with going through Contraption Maker tutorials to familiarize themselves with how many different parts could be used in a more complex machine.  They then had to complete a series of 5 assignments with only a basic objective in mind.  The object of the unit was to teach students how to solve an engineering problem.  The teachers did not provide step-by-step instructions or any specific guidance.  They gave some general advice, but students hat to solve all the engineering problems on their own.

That, in and of itself, is pretty cool to us.  We not only played a part in helping 144 students learn about engineering, but we also got to place Singapore on our map as a school that uses Contraption Maker.  But it gets better for all you educators out there: Peoy Kiong Ng and the other professors shared the assignments for the class with us.  You can download a copy of the Rube Goldberg curriculum unit here, including both the intro lecture, some basic guidelines and the assignments.  I’ve also listed the five assignments below as something you can use in your classrooms.  It’s a great way to introduce creative engineering to high school or college students.

ASSIGNMENT 1: Of Mice and Bread

The bakery shop in your neighborhood was plagued by mice recently. The baker was at wits ends and decided to seek your help to come up with ingenious ways to address the problem. To simplify the problem, your objective is to build a device to catch 3 mice separately (not simultaneously) using 3 different mechanisms.

Before developing the machine, you must first place 3 running mice on different platform. Next, explore and develop the mechanism that will help you to catch one mouse at a time.

You may use as many objects as you like, but they must be relevant to achieving the objective. Your device/mechanism should consist of no less than 5 objects (excluding the 3 running mice). Marks will be given for creativity and the number of actions generated, i.e. the more sophisticated the better.

ASSIGNMENT 2: Weighing dilemma

The Top-Sports owner recently brought in three different types of sports balls (eg. basketball, soccer ball and bowling ball) and wanted to find out their relative weights. However, the shop weighing machine was damaged due to wear and tear, so the owner asked you to come up with some ingenious ways to determine the relative weight of the three ball types and tell him which ball type is the lightest, medium and heaviest. The relative weights should be determined through one program run only.

You may use as many objects as you like, but they must be relevant to achieving the objective. However, your device/mechanism should consist of no less than 5 objects (excluding the balls). Marks will be given for creative ideas and the number of actions generated, i.e. the more sophisticated the better.

A Student Works on his Rube Goldberg Assignment

A Student at Ngee Ann Polytechnic Works on the Rube Goldberg Assignment.

ASSIGNMENT 3: Lights on at School

Students from a primary school are learning about lights in their science class. You, the science teacher, want to illustrate the principle of colored-light combination to the students using some form of training-aids.

The training aid should display at least the following:

  1. blue light and red light produce magenta light
  2. green light and red light produce yellow light
  3. blue light and green light produce cyan light
  4. cyan, yellow and magenta lights produce white light

Using Contraption Maker software, devise a visual training aid to illustrate principle of light combination (Hint : use colored lasers to replace light sources).

You can use as many objects as you like, but your device/mechanism should consist of no less than 5 objects. Marks will be given for creative ideas and the number of actions generated, i.e. the more sophisticated the better.

ASSIGNMENT 4: Single Switch

Devise a conceptual electrical system that allows you to switch on the following home appliances separately using a single triggering event :

  1. rotating fan
  2. kettle or egg beating machine
  3. blender or can opener
  4. vacuum cleaner
  5. toaster

You can use as many objects as you like, but your simulation should consist of no less than 5 objects. Marks will be given for creative ideas and the number of actions generated, i.e. the more sophisticated the better. (Hint : use a combination of motors and generators)

ASSIGNMENT 5: Getting to the Game

A certain manufacturing plant makes sports balls such as basketballs, bowling balls and baseballs. After these balls are manufactured and inspected, they are delivered via conveyor belts for packaging in boxes before being shipped out to their customers.

Your assignment is to devise a delivery system using motor, gears and conveyor belts to deliver and package three types of newly manufactured sports balls into their respective packaging boxes.

To develop the scenario, you can place three conveyor belts on the stage. The first conveyor belt consists of three basketballs, the second belt comprises three baseballs and the third belt consists of three bowling balls. Next, devise the gear and motor mechanism so that when the motor starts, all the three conveyor belts move together. The balls are then delivered to the end of the conveyor belts before they are pushed into their packaging boxes.

You can use as many objects as you like, but your simulation should consist of no less than 5 objects. Marks will be given for creative ideas and the number of actions generated, i.e. the more sophisticated the better.

Ngee Ann Polytechnic Students Work on Assignments in Contraption Maker's Make Mode

Ngee Ann Polytechnic Students Work on Assignments in Contraption Maker’s Make Mode.

Thanks to Ngee Ann Polytechnic for sharing these lesson ideas!  We hope to continue sharing these great lesson ideas.  If you are an educator who would like to share a lesson, please contact me at deborah@spotkin.com.

-Deborah Fike

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