Using Contraption Maker in a Language Arts / ELA Lesson

June 23rd, 2015 by Deborah Fike

The following guest blog was written by Kris Schwengel, one of our educational advisors.  He is passionate about engaging and motivating kids, as shown in his TEDx talk on project-based learning.   

Kris SchwengelAloha from Hawaii.  I’m Kris Schwengel and I teach 4th Grade.  I can’t believe I’m now old enough to admit that I was using ‘The Incredible Machine’ in 1995!  So when a colleague told me about ‘Contraption Maker’ I knew I had to explore its uses in my classroom.  And I believe I struck gold.  We all know that the number of things we are expected to teach is growing while the school day and year is not expanding.  This means integration is the key to adding anything to our classrooms.  I’ve found some neat ways to integrate Contraption Maker that I’ll document in this blog.

Language Arts Integration

We all should see the value in kids making Rube Goldberb machines: collaboration, creativity, resilience, engineering, and fun.  But there’s a huge problem.  Once students get a marble to run down a path and knock over a few dominoes, it’s wildly challenging for kids to keep going, for a variety of reasons such as time, materials, tools, and fabrication skills.  Contraption Maker solves this problem.

If you agree that Rube Goldberg machines have value for students please continue; If you do not, then go jump in a lake.

Since Contraption Maker is so fun for students, it’s a great idea to harness this energy and integrate it.  I’ve seen Contraption Maker increase the motivation of students to write and share their work with classmates.

If you agree that Contraption Maker will energize your classroom and motivate students to write please continue; If you do not, then please return to the 1980s.

Lesson Plan

Students create their own contraptions.  I’d suggest limiting the machine to about seven events.  Otherwise, things can get quite complex for this activity.  I have also usually assigned the last event of the machine like “Make toast” or “Release the mouse from its cage.”  I believe this simplifies the assignment and also creates twenty-five machines that are remarkably different except for the final event.    We’ll use Johnny and Suzie as examples here.

So now, Johnny has a working machine of about seven events.  His next challenge is to write out a paragraph describing the sequential events of his machine.  Now we see the integration with Language Arts skills such as sequential writing, transition words (first, next, then, etc.), descriptive details, action verbs, and relational prepositions.

Johnny then passes that text (just the text) to Suzie, who is then challenged to re-create Johnny’s machine using Contraption Maker.  The kids absolutely love this part of the challenge.

Johnny and Suzie then compare their two machines.  Depending on Johnny’s writing skills and Suzie’s building/reading skills, the two machines come out remarkable similar or sometimes remarkably different.  It’s fascinating to place screenshots of the two machines on a document with the text in between.  The following are actual examples of how this lesson plan turned out in class, using the same two students.


Note that Quinn made an almost exact replica of Devin’s original machine.  But, when the tables are turned…

Devyn…Devyn’s reproduction of Quinn’s machine looks quite different.

This year I did this activity twice with students.  The first time I went over transition words with the students, but the second time I challenged the students to use more relational prepositions such as ‘The dog moves to the right on the brick path.’  The second attempts demonstrate more details and thus the re-creation of the machines is more successful.  Again, the better the writing, the better the challenge can be completed.

I can tell you the miraculous uptick in student motivation, writing volume, and general excitement around the entire process, but instead, I’ll challenge you to give integrating Contraption Maker a try.  I’d bet my truck you’ll find success for your students.


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