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For a group of Norge Elementary fourth- and fifth-graders, opening an umbrella could be as easy as rolling a marble down a ramp, knocking over a row of dominoes and sending a stuffed animal down a zip line.
Winning the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, or even just creating a contraption to complete the task, are not the ultimate goals of Norge’s Rube Goldberg club. Rather, it’s to engage students in STEM activities and develop problem-solving, teamwork and communications skills, gifted resource teacher Jamie Collins said.
“We have 28 kids stay after school to do science and math and engineering and, regardless of the competition, we’ve met the purpose of what this club is about,” Collins said.
Collins said she and Ann Beatty, a fourth-grade teacher and science curriculum lead, started the after-school club this year at the suggestion of Norge’s PTA.
Since late January, students have been sketching out and testing ideas for different steps of their Rube Goldberg machine, which is defined as an “overly complex contraption, designed with humor and a narrative, to accomplish a simple task,” according to the Rube Goldberg website.
Collins said gifted students have “keen sense of humor” that melds well with the whimsy of cartoonist Rube Goldberg, who illustrated contraptions for simple tasks like swatting flies or watering the lawn.
“I think gifted students are always thinking, and they’re so creative that I knew they would be able to come up with a creative way to meet the task,” Collins said.
Students say they have learned persistence and perseverance as they test and tweak steps of the contraption.
“We learned that you have to keep trying multiple times, instead of just doing it once and giving up,” fourth-grader Evan Miller said.
Fourth-grader Taylor Dowell also noted the importance of patience when devising a contraption with other people.
“We have to stick together and not get frustrated at each other,” Dowell said.
Fifth-grader Keagan Krzyzanski dedicated half of Tuesday afternoon’s tinkering time to drawing out the steps groups had created and determining the best flow for the contraption.
This year’s Rube Goldberg Machine Contest requires teams to implement no less than 10 steps but no more than 75 to complete the task of opening an umbrella.
Krzyzanski said he has enjoyed working with his group to develop the “zip line” step of the contraption.
“It’s fun to hear what people think about your ideas and it’s fun to see if they fail or not,” he said.
For the zip line step, a stuffed animal on a coat hanger would whiz down a string to trigger another step. When the zip line wasn’t working as the group envisioned, members brainstormed ideas and returned with a solution – thicker string, Krzyzanski said.
“Nothing is going to work on the first try,” he said. “It’s not always about you. Sometimes other people have better ideas.”
The club has until April 1 to submit a video of its final, fully-operational contraption. The entry will be judged against submissions from all over the U.S. and around the world.
Fourth-grader Declan Walsh said he decided to join the Rube Goldberg club because it sounded “really fun and interesting” and he wanted a chance to help with something “really, really big” like the international competition.
Walsh said he has high expectations for Norge’s success.
“We’re hoping we’ll get first, close second or extremely close third,” Walsh said.
The winners will be announced May 20.