So kids aren’t playing with rubber bands and string anymore?

True story: Recently I took a small group of students to visit a lab, and while breaking for lunch on some garden benches, they began climbing the trees nearby. They were getting a bit noisy when a lady walking by stopped and looked up into the branches. I thought I would get asked to get them to ‘behave’. But the lady smiled and said loudly to others passing by, “Look! look! children are playing on trees again!”

It took me a few seconds to figure out what she was really saying – that having seen so many kids today plugged into screens, it’s thrilling to see them having fun scampering up trees. (Side note: this was outside a Mars Space lab in Tempe, Arizona, and we were on a field trip to see a whole lot of technology!)

Drawing from : 7th period: Feed a Fish Wikispaces page Click on image to visit this class project page

I keep this in mind when I introduce students to new technologies. Last week, I began a lesson on animation, and as subject matter, I returned to the ‘Rube Goldberg Machine.’ We don’t always need screens for this. (Unless we need to check out the many Rube Goldberg contests like this.). How could we turn students into makers, and innovators, problem-solvers and scientific thinkers?

A Rube Goldberg Machine (or ‘contraption‘) teaches us a lot about levers, gravity, kinetic energy, and chain reactions among other things – such as precision, iterative design, and learning from failure. All it takes is some lengths of wood, string, paper cups, shoe boxes, old clothes hangers, marbles and/or ping-pong balls, rubber bands and cardboard tubes.

I like to get them to ‘design’ their machine first, and see what they come up with – then set them on a building mission! We could use a drawing app, but paper and pencil work just fine!

Image on right – One of the manyprojects from a 7th grade class – found here

Using mixed-media and Rube Goldberg in a STEM class

This year I began trying a series of mixed-media in my class, with Common Core in mind.

For instance, last week I began using Rube Goldberg as a point of interest through which to teach 4th, 5th and 6th graders both science and document creation. It’s impossible for young people to not be enthused by the simplicity and complexity of Rube Goldberg contraptions –a useful point to make, considering his belief that we humans tend to make simple tasks more complicated than they need to be.

What resonates with students seems to be the basic elements of one of these machines – ordinary objects lying around a home. I’ve even found it useful to get third graders to talk excitedly about forces and gravity, after demonstrating a crude ‘machine’ in my class. “Crude,” as in what appears to be a hastily put together contraption of a ball, some string, paperclips, and a ruler. Here’s what I did last week:

I tied a length of string to the door handle, and wrapped it around a computer terminal, then stretched it about 15 feet to a stool, tying that end to a ‘lever’ (made of Lego pieces).

When the lever is moved, it drops a ball onto a ruler balanced on a cardboard box. The ruler, when tipped (by the weight of the ball) sends another ball shooting into the air.

We tested it out; it was hit or miss. But when it worked, I picked a student to catch the flying ball.

What was fun, and unexpected, was when the teacher came to pick up the students, the contraption went to work, and the ball flew into the air. I don’t know what the teacher thought was going on in a ‘computer class’ but I think they have all come to expect that this is not just about hardware and software, but science and technology.

Rube Goldberg’s ‘machine’ also helps me draw out the larger lessons of STEM:

  • Problem solving and experimentation go hand in hand
  • It’s OK to fail -and learn something from your mistakes
  • The ‘laws’ of science don’t need to be memorized to be applied
  • Scientists are cool people. They don’t only work in murky labs with hazardous chemicals
  • Big Ideas haven’t all been taken. The world is always anxious for the better mousetrap!

Here’s another contraption I’ve begun using to teach…. animation in Powerpoint.



And what’s the connection between PPT and a Rube Goldberg contraption?

I get students to create one of their slides using shapes, and create a ‘machine’ using shapes –you know, cones, cylinders, slides, etc. and get a ball to ‘move’ through a sequence, almost mimicking the device they help me build and test.

It’s turning out to be a fun way to combine computer skills, science, and hands-on activity, and get them thinking deeper about the connection between a computer lab and science and technology.