The auditorium at Pocahontas County High School is usually the site of band concerts, plays and various academic contests such as Math Field Day. But in April, it housed a Rube Goldberg machine created by students in Jennifer Nail’s and Laurel Dilley’s engineering class.
In the past, the engineering class did projects with robotics components, but this year, they studied the work of Rube Goldberg – an American cartoonist, sculptor, author, engineer and inventor who is best known for his cartoons featuring complicated gadgets which performed simple tasks.
Those gadget designs went on to inspire others to create real-life machines – known as Rube Goldberg machines. One well-known machine would be the board game Mouse Trap.
Dilley explained that students have made Rube Goldberg machines in the past as individual projects, but this year, they upped the ante and the class divided into groups to create portions of one large scale machine which filled the school’s auditorium.
“This time, the kids said, ‘What if we made a huge one and wrapped it all the way through the auditorium,’” she recalled. “It was another level of difficulty because they each had to tie in to one or two other courses. That part was really cool, to see groups working together at the junction points. It made my heart happy as a teacher.”
In the process of making their machines, the students learned about the six types of simple machines – a lever, a pulley, an incline plane, a screw and a wedge. Each group was required to use five of the six in their portion of the larger machine.
“That was also another challenge for them,” Dilley said. “Most of them skipped the screw because it would be difficult to secure something with a screw and still have motion. It’s been awesome to see these kids work through that.”
The students worked on the project for four weeks, although they only had class three days a week due to the COVID-19 school schedule. Despite the altered schedule, the students were able to create machines that seamlessly fit together to create one large-scale Rube Goldberg machine.
“They had to mock-up designs and coordinate with the teams on either side of their stretch before they could start,” Dilley said. “A lot of planning went into it, but, more specifically, they found out what wouldn’t work and what had to be tweaked. It’s been interesting to me as a teacher to see the students be really motivated to do something hands-on like this.”
Once it was finished, the students were eager to put it to the test. The simple task the machine was designed to do was to send a golf ball from the front door of the auditorium to Hadden Mick who was waiting outside to hit the ball down to the football field. The entire process takes roughly five minutes.
“The whole point is it starts with Ben Dunz chipping a golf ball at the beginning and then Hadden Mick swings and hits the golf ball at the very end, down toward the football field,” Dilley said. “It runs from the front doors and halfway down the ramp, crosses over bars – there are pulleys and ferris wheels – runs back behind the sound system, then comes down one of the steps. Jennalee [Meck] and Ty [Cochran] have a zipline that goes up onto the stage and all the way back to the doors behind the stage to the area where the garage is. Then Hunter Curran and Sean Beverage have this elaborate thing back there with go-cart tracks. It is insane.”
After the first trial run, there were a few hiccups, but the students were able to troubleshoot and work out the kinks before running through it again.
“We ran it through the whole auditorium Thursday, and it was awesome,” Dilley said. “I don’t know why, but I was so excited about it. My heart was even beating fast. There were a bunch of classes in there trying to watch.”
A week later, the class ran the machine several more times, and Dilley had David Bond film the entire process.
“I have David Bond doing the videography, and he’s cleared certain paths through the auditorium,” she said. “He’s got stacks of paper so he can get a good vantage point. It is hilarious to see these kids in action. They’re super into it and it’s fun as a teacher to watch them collaborating.
“It’s definitely frustrating at certain times, but they do what they’ve got to do.”