Rube Goldberg Machines and the Engineering Design Process

Rube Goldberg – a comically involved, complicated invention, laboriously contrived to perform a simple operation. ~ Webster’s New World Dictionary

When Rube Goldberg walked away from his engineering career in 1904, it’s unlikely he realized the impact that he would have on 21st century education. I find it ironic that many educators at the forefront of STEM education find inspiration from his cartoons, like The Simple Alarm Clock, that were published in newspapers across the United States over 100 years ago.

When I initially share the Engineering Design Process with my middle school students (see below), I like to have them collaboratively plan, construct and then use the iterative process to continuously refine a Rube Goldberg Machine.

engineering design process

While some may wonder at the notion of designing a contraption merely for the sake of engineering, I have found that this lighthearted approach allows me to introduce my students to a practice that may otherwise be intimidating if it were presented in a more serious, stressful fashion.

A wonderful byproduct of this project is that I’m able to pre-assess my new students in many areas of physical science without using a paper test. While the students are drafting their design plans, they’re required not only to label and provide measurements along with their drawings, but also the reasoning behind the selection and placement of each piece of their machine. This narrative, which is the first entry in the student’s engineering design notebook, allows me to gain a better understanding of each student’s initial skill set in both science and engineering, and also helps me develop a “feel” for the class as a whole.

As I looked through Teaching Channel’s library of science and engineering resources, I was excited to find a video titled Rube Goldberg Contraptions. This selection, which features Debbie Clark’s 8th grade class, is a wonderful place to witness engineering in its truest sense.

While her students’ work demonstrates a working knowledge of physical science standards, they’re also asked to focus on and make special note of the Next Generation Science Standard Cross Cutting Concept – Cause and Effect. I especially like the fact that she goes about the task in a systematic fashion similar to my own, and that she has the students orally present prior to demonstrating their machines to the class. Great stuff!

I encourage you to explore the aforementioned video, as well as the “supporting materials” on the right hand side of the web page. I’m also including a couple of my favorite introductory Rube Goldberg resources for your consideration:

  • The music video of the song This Too Shall Pass by the group OK Go is a wonderful way for students to begin brainstorming potential projects.
  • The Cog, a commercial by Honda Motor Company, not only has a wonderful background story, it also demonstrates to students the many difficulties and numerous iterations it took to refine a system as complex as this amazing final product.

If you have any questions or comments about Rube Goldberg or the Engineering Design Process, please make a note in the comments below so we can start a discussion and share additional knowledge and resources. I look forward to hearing from you!

Tom Jenkins teaches both middle school science and STEM in Enon, Ohio. He is a NASA SOFIA Airborne Astronomy Ambassador, Manager of Special Projects at the Dayton Regional STEM Center, as well as the Boeing Science Teacher Laureate for Teaching Channel. Connect with Tom via Twitter: @TomJenkinsSTEM.

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