Experiment and Play on Science Expo Day

There is one day every year at Parker Middle School when normal routine and general ed classes are cast aside to dedicate four uninterrupted hours of our 180 day schedule to just one subject: Science.

This year fellow Earth Science teacher, Connie Quackenbush and I broke from our usual set of mini-lessons and went with an activity that felt more like real science. Something messy. Something full of failures. Something with so many unforeseen challenges and obstacles that success sometimes seemed out of reasonable reach…

Rube Goldberg machines.

The concept is simple. Students were shown a few videos of popular Rube Goldberg machines in action from YouTube a week before Science Expo, and the criteria was outlined. Standards were established for levels of Rube Goldberg achievement, and students were given a chance to actively participate in the engineering design process as outlined here by PBS’s Design Squad website.

Over the course of the week, students in groups of four or five planned elaborate machines designed to simply cause a marble to fall in to a cup. Students brought construction materials in from home and built their machines in small sections or all together at once to determine the reliability of their machine.

Disappointment set in as a task so simple suddenly became difficult to complete, never mind replicate multiple times! By the time Science Expo day had arrived students had built, failed, redesigned, left and returned to school with new building materials at least three times. The video below shares their final test construction and test phases in the hours and minutes before their machines were put into action and on display for their classmates to review and commend.

The handout provided to students to outline the project is shared here.

There is so much to be learned from this kind of experimental play: The acceptance of failure and the resolve to try again. Cooperation, reliance, and negotiation amongst peers to accomplish the task at hand. The stress of working on a definite deadline (there was always a timer clock running in the background, reminding students their work would be on display in due time!) Never mind the hands-on experience of grappling with momentum, transfer of energy, material properties, simple machines, and the difficulty surrounding being both accurate and precise!

Consider using Rube Goldberg machines in your classroom to get students enthusiastic about the engineering process and an easy to manage project based learning activity. I’d be curious to know how other teachers bring the engineering process into their student lives in a way that all kinds of educators (not just science teachers!) can participate?

About Sean Musselman

Teacher Dad and Burlington MA Schools K-5 Science and Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator. NSTA Professional Development facilitator and author of "Think Like a Scientist: Investigating Weather and Climate" NSTA Kids ebook.
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