Students combine fun, learning with Rube Goldberg contraptions
Hope — Eighth-grade students demonstrated their Rube Goldberg contraptions for some of the other classes at Hope Elementary School Friday, Feb. 28.
The devices, modeled on the outrageous machines devised by the late inventor and cartoonist, all used elaborate means to accomplish a simple task. Among them were a machine that inserted a bagel in a toaster, one that shot a slingshot, two that turned on a blender to make a smoothie, a cat-activated cat feeder, and even one that pressed a key on a computer to send an email.
John Dietter, who teaches sixth- through eighth-grade science, said the assignment had several purposes. It helps students think like engineers: they focus on the transfers of energy in their device and the types of energy present, and they use the laws of thermodynamics to create a successful contraption. For those who may not remember, those laws are: energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed; and systems move from order to chaos.
Perseverance was one lesson of the project: Aaron Jones, part of the team that built the slingshot-shooter, said the group had a hard time finding something to fall onto the mousetrap that triggers the slingshot. Finally, they came up with a battery-powered toy dog that slowly climbs a ramp before toppling onto the mousetrap.
Dietter said the Rube Goldberg assignment was also a chance for those students who learn best by doing to shine. Some children do well learning a set of principles first and then applying them, while others need to do the application first to understand the principle. He offers students frequent opportunities to show their learning in more than one way.
For example, when the eighth-graders had a unit on the heart, Dietter gave them the choice of taking a quiz, making a drawing of the heart and circulatory system, or making a model. Some students chose the quiz, he said, but several chose the drawing or the model.
The students confirmed the value of this type of learning for them. Sydney Moody said, “If I get more hands-on, it helps me learn better and I retain the information better.” Her Rube Goldberg partner, Sydney Fields, was more cautious. For her, the usefulness of hands-on projects, “depends on what it is.”
Emma Stone, who collaborated with Nicole Brown to make the cat-feeder, liked making her machine. “I'm a very hands-on person. I can write stuff, but it's not enjoyable for me.”
Tyler Dodd and Brandyn Frampton, who worked with Jones on the slingshot-shooter, also preferred learning by doing. “Sitting down all day and just writing stuff isn't that interesting,” said Dodd, adding that working with his hands helps him retain information. He made a poster of the heart and circulatory system for the heart unit.
Frampton concurred. “I can't really focus when I'm just doing papers,” he said.