At Aquinas High School, one science and math teacher is hoping to inspire a student to become the next great American inventor.
About 60 physics students built Rube Goldberg machines for their end-of-the-semester class project in Barry Cook’s class earlier this month.
Using rotational motion, springs and gravity, the 11th- and 12th-graders had to keep a golf ball in constant motion for at least 57 seconds to pop a balloon at the end.
The machines are named for Rube Goldberg, an American inventor who drew cartoons depicting simple tasks completed by complex, convoluted means. Students and scientists have been building chain-reaction contraptions for years.
“It’s a crazy machine that uses various forms of mechanical energy,” Cook said. “It teaches them to use the concepts of mechanical engineering we’ve been studying all semester.”
To the undiscerning eye, the machines look like a tangled mess of wood, soda bottles, string, nails, mousetraps and other supplies. One machine used several dozen CD covers to create a domino effect. Another featured a slowly descending maze of wood and pipes.
“They’re supposed to be creative and think outside of the box,” Cook said.
The students were divided into groups of three or four and had two months to complete the project. At some point during the experiment, the rolling ball must fall 20 centimeters through the air.
Twelfth-grader Andrew May spent a week building the machine with his group, including 13 hours the day before the students tested their machines in front of judges. His group’s final run went as planned, except the golf ball rolled faster than expected down the sloping maze design.
“The closer you are to 57 seconds, the better,” May said. “It incorporates everything we’ve learned in class – gravity, slope, kinetic energy.”
Aquinas physics students have been building and testing Rube Goldberg machines for seven years under the direction of Cook. Students also build projectile launchers and batteries during the school year to make science a hands-on learning experience.
“Some students come to high school with a natural bent toward science and math, and some don’t,” he said. “It’s very important to me as a science teacher to work to make the classroom exciting and fun.”
Eleventh-grader Abigail Paul was disappointed her group’s balloon didn’t pop as it had during every test run. But she still walked away from the semester with an important lesson.
“I learned that physics isn’t actually that bad. It was actually fun making this,” Paul said.