Ever since I started posting about our Rube Goldberg work, I’ve noticed that lots of folks have found their way to my blog with searches like “how do I do a Rube Goldberg.” There’s really no manual out there that I’ve found – no step by step instruction book. This makes sense, really, because the whole idea behind the Rube is that every one is different and completely dependent on the individual’s creativity.
Still, after doing it with my kids, I think I can provide a bit of road map for other intrepid adventurers.
How To Do A Rube Goldberg
1. Begin with youtube. Just spend a morning searching for Rube Goldberg videos – there are hundreds! And so amazing. Here are a couple of my favorites:
2. Don’t forget to look at the original drawings too! Try Rube Goldberg: Inventions by Maynard Frank Wolfe.
3. Discuss with your students that this is about process as much as the end result. The magic of the Rube is the myriad opportunities it provides for problem solving! Be sure to show them the Mythbusters Christmas special, which shows not only their Rube Goldberg project, but provides a delightful insight to how many times things go wrong in a project like this, even for professionals.
4. Instruct students to decide on themes and an end action. Will the machine tell a story? What is its ultimate goal? Each portion of the machine has to receive an action that converts its potential energy to kinetic energy. It also has to cause the next action to happen. But don’t forget humor – this should be fun! My kids incorporated several of their favorite story lines into their project, including Harry Potter, Munchkin, and Eva’s beloved stuffed animal Kinzy.
5. Consider offering certain parameters. If you’re wanting to study simple machines as a part of this project (which I did), require the students to incorporate them. They’ll do this anyway, because Rube Goldbergs are all about simple machines! But by requiring certain machines, it helps students identify the components they’re using and think about them scientifically. Parameters also help get the kids started. The only machine I required for the kids was a pulley. I also required that the final machine be comprised of at least five components. But the rest was up to them.
6. Have your students draw out ideas for their machines. Or not. Follow your kids’ leads. If they’re list-makers, let them make lists. If they feel the need instead to just get started, then let them. Again, this is all about process.
7. Be prepared to ditch large amounts of work if necessary. If something’s not working, then change it to make the project successful. We had to change everything, including our timeline, materials, and even who would be working on it.
8. Ask discussion-oriented questions when things go wrong and be sure to have kids identify several things. Ask 1) what went wrong, 2) what made it go wrong, and 3) what are the possible solutions. Be sure to have them identify many possible solutions before choosing one. For example, when our broomstick fell too quickly on our falling pendulum, the kids identified all the things that could slow it down. They could increase friction, decrease the broomstick’s weight, or decrease the incline of the pendulum track. We discussed the pros and cons of each avenue before the kids made their choice.
9. Do not be in a hurry. Rube Goldbergs can take a lot of time, depending on how much the kids bring to it. Don’t rush the process.
10. Video, share, and celebrate your successes! Take advantage of youtube, facebook, email, your school website, friends, and family. If you’re into it, do a blooper reel too.
11. And lastly, I offer a prequel suggestion. Rube Goldberg machines are a great way to teach physical science. We did a semester of physics and simple machines before we started the Rube. I used Lego WeDo Education (which was a great concept, but the software was constantly crashing), Forces and Motion Science Fair Projects by Robert Gardner, Zombies and Forces and Motion by Mark Weakland, and a cute albeit dated series of clips I found on youtube by Eureka. You’ll find them by going to youtube and typing “simple machines Eureka.” There are a lot of other great instructional simple machines videos too, so have fun browsing around.
And now for the closeup tour. First, the video once again:
This is component number one, a simple ramp. The kids love the game Munchkin, and in that game there is a card called “Kill the Hireling.”
They think that’s hilarious and chose to use it for the first piece. The hireling (the lego figure at the bottom) ended up having to go without a head, because its head kept getting in the way. But we thought that was funny too.
This next component is one that we saw in a lot of other Rube Goldberg machines. The goal is to transfer movement from low to high using ramps, balls, and levers. Each ramp allows the ball to roll down and into a lever; the lever transfers the motion upwards to the next ramp.
When the pulley system is activated, it pulls a string (I did help with the tying of the string) that’s attached to a stick that props up a flying broomstick (a nod to Harry Potter). Once that stick is pulled away, the broomstick swings on a pendulum.
At the end of the broomstick’s arc is Kinzy’s bowl of eucalyptus. This bowl gets knocked off its pedestal and onto Kinzy’s table. Lunch is served!