Academic journal article Science Scope

The Thinking Machine: A Physical Science Project

Academic journal article Science Scope

The Thinking Machine: A Physical Science Project

Article excerpt


Science projects can be a wonderful opportunity for learning and creativity, or a gigantic headache for teachers. After several years of implementation, experience, and revision, I have put together a fun and engaging project centered on machines that is appropriate for middle school students. This project came to be known simply as "The Thinking Machine Project," which draws its origin from the national Rube Goldberg Machine competition held each year at Purdue University (see Resource). Here is one way to bring technology, writing, drawing, creativity, and hands-on ingenuity together in a single fun and successful project.

This project allows students to draw on their prior knowledge and construct their own representation of working machines. It is most

effectively used at the conclusion of a mechanics unit when students have been exposed to concepts such as speed, velocity, acceleration, Newton's laws, forces, friction and momentum, etc. I suggest (if possible) covering your simplemachines unit just before beginning this project to ensure students have had plenty of exposure to parts, functions, and the concepts of simple machines (level, pulley, gear, inclined plane, wheel and axle, mechanical advantage, etc.).

Student groups are challenged to construct a functioning machine that uses approximately five individual steps to accomplish a simple task, such as squeezing toothpaste onto a toothbrush. I usually decide on a task prior to introducing this project to the class and set up the task as their machines' end goal. Squeezing toothpaste onto a toothbrush is always popular and messy, however it can be as simple as popping a balloon or cutting a piece of paper with scissors. The task of creating the machine involves many intricate steps. When using the word steps here, I am specifically referring to parts or pieces of a working machine that create steps to accomplish a goal. Students use materials provided to creatively craft their own unique steps to accomplish the class task. The difficulty compounds when the class must integrate and combine each group's steps with all of the other groups in the class, essentially forming one giant working machine made of 25-40 steps (depending on class and group size). Imagine an enormous game of Mousetrap being set up and played out in your classroom--it's awesome! Students need to call upon their knowledge of machines and motion in order to successfully complete this task. The project spans roughly six class days, given each class meeting is about 55 minutes. I block a week close to the end of the semester for this project. I would suggest beginning on a Friday, and concluding the following Friday (see Figure 1 for a detailed day-by-day guide).

Breaking it down to bits and pieces

Prior to getting the project started, I spend a little time introducing Rube Goldberg and explaining a little about his history, cartoons, and the competition at Purdue. Once students have an idea of what is to be done, the class gets very excited about putting a new spin on this idea. I break the project description into smaller chunks, and present it to my students initially in this way:

* Student goal--To construct a Rube Goldberg-like machine to accomplish a given task (such as popping a balloon) using materials provided (see Figure 2 for suggested materials). We will discuss what the task will be for the class and that your creations should work (function) and demonstrate the principles of machines that you have learned, such as how they work, how to use gravity as a component, strategic placement of a fulcrum, and how to create simple machines using unconventional materials.

* The connection--As you are establishing your individual steps in the machine, you must decide how you will connect your steps to the groups before and after you. Each group draws a number from a jar to determine how the groups will be interconnected. …

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