BFS Turns 150
rube goldberg 2015

That’s So Rube Goldberg. The Science of the Comically Impractical

Rube Goldberg – (adj.) accomplishing by complex means what seemingly could be done simply

Rarely does someone accomplish something so unique that their name becomes an adjective. The fictional MacGyver might come to mind but that’s a verb. In 1931 the phrase Rube Goldberg officially entered the English lexicon when Merriam-Webster added it to the dictionary. Their definition remains to this day.

In mechanical engineering an unnecessarily complicated machine would be a mistake but Rube Goldberg wasn’t an engineer. He was a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist. His crazy contraptions, invented by his fictional Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, first leaped off the page and into real life in a contest held as a lark between fraternities at Purdue University in 1949.

BFS entered the fray about seven years ago according to Science Department Chair Blake Sills. “When the IB had first started I had arrived in the second year of the two-year program,” he recalled.  “In the criteria the students have to accomplish what’s called a Group Four project. It goes beyond the curriculum and is based on the school’s geography and the expertise of the teachers.”

He explained that the goal of a Group Four IB Science project is to get juniors and seniors to collaborate on an endeavor that takes about 10 hours to complete and which involves planning, action and reflection. “Other schools have done beach cleanups, service projects, that allow time for kids outside the classroom to be able to work together.  We tried to come up with something that would work at this school,” Blake said of himself and two former faculty colleagues.  They came up with the concept of the Rube Goldberg machine as a way for students in small groups to problem-solve, plan, communicate, and collaborate.

Students are typically placed in groups of six or seven and are a blend from the IB Physics, IB Biology and IB Environmental Science classes. Each group appoints a leader to serve as an interface for the teachers who are evaluating their work. The given theme is sustainability. “The project has to have some kind of sustatinable goal,” said Blake, “like planting a seed or turning off a light.” One year students built a machine that would tap a keyboard and make a donation to an environmental nonprofit. This year’s projects included machines built to turn off a classroom light, water a plant, and put a piece of paper into a recycling bin. “You can’t buy anything, you must use found objects and repurpose them,” he said, “including things within the science classroom–pullies, wheels. Sustainability’s not really the ultimate goal.  It’s just to give them a structure.”

Before the big day, the groups get to meet once in an extended lab period “build day” to concoct and diagram their contraptions. “Then when they get to the six or seven-hour day they have to realize it as some kind of machine,” said Blake. “It doesn’t necessarily have to work. The important part is how to work through disappointment and frustration. We evaluate them on their ability to power through and work together and maintain good spirits, which is within the parameters of the IB curriculum.”

Each group also uses video to document their entire process and then edits it down to a short summary presentation. At the end of January, students meet for a final session to debrief, discuss their projects, and reflect on their experiences. Teachers also require written self-evaluations in which students discuss personal challenges and unexpected obstacles they had to overcome, in addition to peer evaluations of their teammates. “Realizing they’ll be judged by their peers,” said Blake, “is the motivation that some kids need to help them participate a little more than they would otherwise.”

He’s quick to point out, however, that the project has repeated for seven years and counting because it works, and because it’s a consistent hit with students. “In the past we’ve always gotten a thumbs up.  They always say yes it was a good thing and it was a bonding experience, which is one of our goals.”

See the video below for a taste of this year’s thrills up close: