Rube Goldberg Machines: Digital vs. Real World

February 11th, 2015 by Deborah Fike

As the creators of Contraption Maker, we’re naturally fascinated by Rube Goldberg machines – those overly complicated devices where it takes a ton of objects and extended time to complete a simple task.  In fact, many of the teachers who use Contraption Maker in the classroom (like our friends over at the Hardin Planetarium) use the game as an introduction to these crazy machines.  They build something digitally in Contraption Maker first, and then make something similar in real life.  Digital prototyping is, of course, standard for many projects.  Engineers often model their creations on the computer before actually building it.

But we got to thinking: what if you swapped the order?  What, if anything, can you learn if you take a real world model and try building it in Contraption Maker?

The Real World Model

To run our experiment, I found a YouTube video of a fairly simple Rube Goldberg machine.  I wanted to pick a machine that a kid could build, so this one by YouTube user oviham seemed like a good place to start:

The boy’s Rube Goldberg machine has the following 6 basic interactions:

  1. The spring (triggered by the boy) puts the first ball in motion.
  2. The first ball rolls down an incline onto the wedge, which puts the second ball in motion.
  3. The second ball rolls into a cup, which tilts the lever.
  4. The lever rotates, releasing the third ball.
  5. The third ball rolls down the incline plane, falling on the wheel.
  6. The wheel turns, and when the needle on one arm hits the balloon, the balloon pops.


The Contraption Maker Model

Opening up “Make Mode” in Contraption Maker, I set out to recreate this balloon-popping device.  I quickly discovered that some steps were easier than others.  Here’s what I came up with:

  1. Tim triggers the pool cue, putting the first marble in motion.  I had to replace the spring with the pool cue, but otherwise, it’s a good replication of what happened in the real world model.
  2. The first marble rolls down an incline onto the spring loaded trap door, which drops the first marble onto the second marble, putting the second one in motion.  Here, I didn’t have a wedge to transfer energy, so I had to get creative.  I could have used a variety of parts (such as having the first marble hit a domino, which in turn, would hit the second marble, thus transferring energy), but decided on the spring loaded trap door.
  3. The second marble rolls into a bucket, which tilts the lever.  Perfect match.
  4. The lever rotates, releasing the third marble.  Still perfect.
  5. The third ball rolls onto the hamster motor, which is attached to an electric generator, turning on a fan.  Contraption Maker doesn’t have a way to put a needle on a wheel arm to pop the balloon, so again, I had to get creative.
  6. The fan blows the balloon toward the tack, and it pops.


Lessons Learned

As developers of video games, we’re always wanting to put more parts in the game.  As I played through this exercise, I kept thinking: wouldn’t it be nice to have a wedge?  And a way to add the tack to the fan?

But from an educational standpoint, there were benefits to not having the exact same set of tools as in the real world model.  Several of the steps were quite easy to replicate, giving me a sense of completion as I quickly recreated those steps.  The two steps that didn’t, however, required creativity, which gave me a different sense of satisfaction once I figured out how to make those reactions work.

So all in all, I’d say watching a real-world contraption and recreating it in Contraption Maker helped reinforce the following ideas:

  • You have to listen and observe carefully several times to figure out what is going on.
  • Writing down the steps helped immensely, since it helped me keep my thoughts straight between what happened before and after each step.
  • There’s more than one way to solve a problem.  For example, you can either start with the input and work toward the output or start with the output and work backwards to the input.  I used both methods during my experiment.
  • When you don’t have “perfect” tools, you must improvise.  And in improvising, you experiment to get the results you want.  Experimentation also gives you the satisfaction of using creativity to problem solve, rather than just blandly following a set of steps.

-Deborah Fike


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