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Rube Goldberg machines teach lessons in physics

Families of freshmen at Animas High School have found it difficult to make breakfast during the last month or so.

The students borrowed coffeemakers, toasters, waffle irons, pancake griddles and even cereal and milk to create their Rube Goldberg machines – a complex and creative way to achieve simple tasks. The project was part of teacher Brian Morgan’s physics and earth sciences class.

To make their machines, they used springs, gears, pulleys, wheels, dominoes, ramps, levers, mousetraps, funnels, ball bearings, marbles, golf balls and parts from games, not to mention duct tape, lots of duct tape. But the lesson wasn’t the task; it was a hands-on way to see how different physics principles work.

“We learned about acceleration, force and transference,” said Emma Poitras, who, with partners Ella Brown and Sierra DesPlanques, created a 14-step toaster process. Their machine included a cellphone set to vibrate that kicked off the steps by pushing a ball bearing down a tube.

“We also learned construction skills,” Emma said. “I didn’t even know what a drill bit was, and we used an electric saw, too.”

Her collaborator mentioned other physics forces at play in their machine.

“We used velocity and kinetic and potential energy, too,” Ella said.

The complexity of the machines reduced the effectiveness of the task completion. Some teams said their machines failed completely. Emma, Ella and Sierra’s machine had managed to toast four slices of bread.

Evan Glogowski, Peter Oles, Dylan Ridgway and John White opted for a less utilitarian task, dropping a Mento into a bottle of Coke to make the Coke bubble over. Their experiment, needless to say, also required paper towels.

“It works about every other time,” Evan said. “We included potential energy, combustion, kinetic energy and mechanical advantage. We learned how much more effective it was with a pulley or lever as long as we accepted the sacrifice of distance.”

The project also taught another 21st-century skill, Cole Elliott said about his team’s project to slice a banana.

“We learned a lot of teamwork,” he said, “As the pressure increased to get it done, we just pulled it together.”

Some teams provided a special touch. The team of Gus Kidd, Finn Stowers and Joe Thomson became mixologists with their “martinis” made with water in vermouth and gin bottles. In addition to chilling the beverage by running the mixture through a funnel filled with ice, they used toy cars, pulleys and wheels to drop an olive into the final product.

“We had a lot of transfer of energy by using ramps,” Gus said about the 16-step contraption. “A little energy given enough gravitational acceleration can gain enough kinetic energy to land a ball in a cup.”


An earlier version of this story misstated Finn Stowers’ name.

May 1, 2016
Animas High makes math, biology fun with escape room

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