Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Approaches to Teaching Rube Goldberg

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Approaches to Teaching Rube Goldberg

Article excerpt

To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.                                                --Thomas Edison 

A Rube Goldberg device is a complicated, yet comically involved machine that performs a simple task (Wolfe 2000) such as closing a door, watering a plant, or typing a key on a keyboard. Creating one is an open-ended activity that challenges students to use prior knowledge, resourcefulness, investigatory skills, and imagination.

What once were humorous cartoons of complex contraptions drawn by Reuben Lucius Goldberg in the early 20th century resurfaced as a national college competition in the late 1980s. Now, this reverse engineering activity has permeated K-12 classrooms as a physical science activity and aligns with the Next Generation Science Standards (see NGSS box, p. 39).

Students meeting NGGS standard HS-PS3: Energy create multiple steps within a Rube Goldberg machine by designing, building, and refining a device that works to transfer energy, often converting one form of energy into another. Furthermore, because a Rube Goldberg machine has multiple transfers of energy, the activity creates a scenario with seemingly endless choices on how to design and build one.

This article describes various strategies teachers can use to engage students in a Rube Goldberg activity within a high school physics classroom. Regardless of the strategy, we recommend that teachers play the role of project manager while students work in groups of three or four. This allows the teacher to provide goal and time management; be a person-of-resource; engage students in productive questioning (Martens 1999); and increase collaboration and interaction among group members by encouraging individual members to share, listen to, and consider other members' ideas.

Displaying physical science phenomena

Every step in a Rube Goldberg machine is considered a transfer of energy, most of which are mechanical transfers of energy. An object in motion will possess enough momentum that when it collides with a second stationary object, it applies enough force to move the second object. As the second object begins to move, the system's potential energy is transformed into kinetic energy as the object continues down the chain of steps in the Rube Goldberg machine.

Teachers can require students to display transfers of energy between different forms of energy to broaden the types of steps in their students' Rube Goldberg machines. For example, teachers can require students to display a transfer from chemical energy to electrical, from electrical energy to thermal energy, or from thermal energy to mechanical energy. This will challenge students to merge multiple science concepts as they design and build their machine.

Simple and compound machines

The identification and use of simple machines is a basic foundation in making a Rube Goldberg machine. As students add simple machines (lever, screw, inclined plane, wheel and axle, pulley, wedge) to their Rube Goldberg device, they create opportunities to identify and calculate the amount of work (Work = Force x Displacement x cosine of angle between Force and Displacement) being done on objects.

To increase the level of creativity in a Rube Goldberg machine, teachers can challenge students to reimagine items in another context. For example, instead of using a pair of scissors to cut, a scissors' opening and closing motion can be used to collide with or allow objects to move forward. As Guilford (1967) found, students who show the ability to repurpose items show higher levels of creativity and imagination.

Newton's laws of motion and collisions

Many steps in a Rube Goldberg project display a collision between two objects. Newton's third law of motion is applied to these collisions as both objects experience forces that are equal in magnitude and opposite in direction. These forces can also cause one object to speed up and the other object to slow down, depending on the equivalency of mass between the two objects. …

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