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How to Build a Rube Goldberg Machine

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    How to Build a Rube Goldberg Machine

    Graphic: How to build a rube goldberg machine.

    Table of contents:

    If you want to help your child have fun, exercise their creativity, and learn about simple machines, why not help them create a Rube Goldberg machine? This post will explain what these machines are and share some easy Rube Goldberg machine ideas to help you get started.

    What Is a Rube Goldberg Machine?

    To understand what a Rube Goldberg machine is, it may help to know about Rube Goldberg himself. Rube Goldberg has become synonymous with elaborate machines featuring chain reactions that overcomplicate a basic task, but Rube Goldberg wasn’t an inventor — he was an American Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist

    Goldberg had an engineering degree, which, combined with his art skills, helped him delight people with his crazy mechanical creations. In the comics, these machines were invented by a character called Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts. The devices may have been fictional, but they were designed to work and were labeled in the style of United States patent applications. In the early 20th century, as the machine age was taking off, Goldberg’s cartoons satirized society’s obsession with all things mechanical.

    Today, children and adults alike enjoy making their own Rube Goldberg machines — that is, simple machines with a series of chain reactions that ultimately accomplish a simple task in a delightfully convoluted way. Creating these machines can help develop learners’ science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills. It can also encourage their creativity and collaboration skills.

    Ideas for Rube Goldberg Machines

    To create a Rube Goldberg machine, you should start with the end of the chain reaction and work your way backward to figure out how you want to get from Point A to Point B. For example, if you want the final action to be flipping on a light switch, you first need to decide how you’ll push up on the light switch, then continue working backward so that each movement is caused by the movement before it.

    Flipping on a light switch is just one idea. Here are a few other Rube Goldberg machine ideas to help you choose the task your machine will accomplish. You could:

    • Drop ice cubes into a glass
    • Water a plant
    • Pop a balloon
    • Turn off an alarm clock
    • Deposit a coin into a piggy bank
    • Squeeze toothpaste onto a toothbrush
    • Crack an egg into a bowl
    • Ring a bell

    Graphic: You can create these machines using household materials.

    Simple Rube Goldberg Machines for Kids

    Rube Goldberg machines are, by definition, simple machines. That may seem contradictory to the elaborate, convoluted nature of these machines as we described them. However, what makes these machines appear complex is the series of chain reactions. Each individual part of the machine is a simple mechanical device that applies its own force. You can create these machines using humble household materials and basic physics principles.

    Let’s look at a few examples of mechanical devices kids can put together to create their own Rube Goldberg machine.

    1. Marble Runs

    Marble runs, or marble chutes, are a fun and effective choice for Rube Goldberg machines. If this is the first step of your machine, you can drop a marble into the start of a chute or track. If this step comes somewhere in the middle of the device, a previous action can push the marble into the chute. When the marble emerges out of the end of the chute, it should cause the next chain reaction. 

    You may be able to use a plastic racecar track for your marble run, or you can cut something like a wrapping paper tube or a PVC pipe to create one. Keep in mind that if you can see the marble as it runs along its track, it adds to the fun of watching your machine work.

    2. Levers

    Levers are a common feature in Rube Goldberg machines. One of the easiest ways to teach a child about this simple machine is to point to the seesaw at the playground. When you apply pressure to one end of a rigid bar resting on a fulcrum, the other end should rise up.

    For example, at the end of your marble run, the marble could roll off a ledge into a cup on one end of a lever. If the marble is heavy enough, it’ll push that end of the lever down, elevating the item on the other end of the lever. That other item could bump into something, causing the following chain reaction to occur. You can create your own lever using basic materials like a binder clip and a ruler.

    3. Domino Chains

    When most people think of a Rube Goldberg machine, there’s a good chance they picture a series of dominoes falling. In fact, dominoes are so strongly associated with chain reactions that we often use the term “domino effect” to mean a chain reaction of events.

    When you want to apply force to an object in your machine, you can set up a line of dominos. Correctly spacing the dominos will ensure that just pushing the first domino over causes the whole line of dominos to fall, with the last domino applying the force you need to lead to the next step in your machine.

    Tips for a Successful Rube Goldberg Machine

    To help your child have a positive experience creating their own Rube Goldberg machine, follow these five tips:

    1. Start small: The largest Rube Goldberg machine on record had over 400 steps from start to finish! While something like that may eventually be your goal, kids can start making machines with just a few steps. If they enjoy the process and want to push themselves further, they can build onto their machines, adding more steps to get to the same end result.
    2. Encourage independence: As a parent, you can supervise and provide some feedback as you go, but it’s best to let kids take the lead. Doing so may even mean stepping back and letting them try a chain reaction you know won’t work. If it doesn’t, help them brainstorm ways to fix the problem.
    3. Work collaboratively: Encourage your child to create their machine with the help of a sibling or friend. You can also help collaborate. Together, the group can bounce Rube Goldberg project ideas off of each other and learn how to put their creativity and critical thinking to use in a group context.
    4. Use household materials: One of the great things about Rube Goldberg machines is they typically use everyday materials you can find around your house. If you don’t own something you need, you may be able to get it at your local hardware store. Concentrating on how to make a Rube Goldberg machine with household items can encourage students’ resourcefulness and creativity.
    5. Have fun: One of the most essential tips is to have fun. Creating a Rube Goldberg machine can be such a fun activity that your child may not even realize they’re learning about important STEM concepts and sharpening their creativity along the way.

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