Eighth Graders Design Clever Rube Goldberg Machines

Cartoonist Rube Goldberg’s eponymous machines are a delight to watch in action, with the goal of performing a simple task in an indirect or overly complicated way. And eighth graders recently discovered that the creative machines aren’t just entertaining – they are a fantastic lesson in physics.

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As a wrap-up to their physics unit, student groups were tasked with creating a Rube Goldberg machine that uses at least one of each type of the six simple machines they recently learned about: a wheel and axle, a lever, an inclined plane, a pulley, a screw or a wedge. Students also tested their knowledge of speed, forces, power and work in building their machines. 

“Some types of simple machines are easy to incorporate, while others are a bit of a challenge,” eighth grade science teacher Alise Barrett explained. Anna Ruiz ’25, whose machine’s task was to pop a balloon, echoed this sentiment: “The most challenging part of the project was getting all six simple machines to work with one another,” Ruiz said. “We struggled with getting our pulley to work.” 

Jordan Lee ’25 and her group, whose machine’s goal was to play the song “Prom Dress” by mxmtoon on her computer, even had to start over at one point. “Even though the process has been a long journey, I’ve still learned a lot from it.” 

Barrett, who is co-teaching classes with fellow science teacher and eighth grade dean Morghan Lewis, has enjoyed seeing students work together to problem solve: “It is fun to watch them use some trial and error to see if each machine works and then how to get them to ‘flow’ together.” That collaboration was “the most fun part,” Ruiz explained.

The project is the brainchild of Lewis. Last spring, when the School transitioned to remote learning, she challenged students to create Rube Goldberg machines “as a fun way to bridge the various topics and concepts learned in physical science into one activity. It’s physics in action!”

Alex Thorn ’25 and his group made a machine that clicked a pen into a “ready to write” position. Their creation required materials such as wood, cardboard, paper, textbooks, a glue cap, string and, as Thorn said, “a lot of glue and tape.” He noted that, because there were many small variables associated with the machine, “The hardest part is the fine tuning at the end of the project.” And that feeling of getting the machine working just right? That’s “by far the best part.” 

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