TEAMWORK MAKES THE DREAM WORK
Having students enter a Rube Goldberg contest helps develop skills in manufacturing, design, and collaboration.
By Marisa K. Orr and Shawn S. Jordan
Project-based learning has become popular over the past couple of decades, primarily due to its potential to increase motivation, engagement, and teamwork. This is especially true in first-year and capstone courses. However, the middle years of engineering programs have seen far less innovation. We had students participate in the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest as part of a junior-level mechanical engineering Dynamics of Machine Elements course. The projects that students created in the contest gave them the opportunity to gain experience in designing, analyzing, implementing, and integrating a variety of machine elements to accomplish a task.
Most tasks would traditionally have a simple, closed-ended solution, so a Rube Goldberg-style approach was used to maximize the design space and promote creativity. Since the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest rewards excessive complexity and unusual steps, students have an added incentive to divergently explore a variety of ideas.
The Rube Goldberg Machine Contest is an international competition devoted to the design and demonstration of contraptions that complete a simple everyday task in an absurdly complex manner. The contest promotes STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) education in a team project-based competition. The competition was inspired by Rube Goldberg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and engineer who was best known for his sketches of crazy inventions that parodied how technology and government sometimes unnecessarily overcomplicate our lives.
The competition rules require that all machines have an observable theme and/or story integrated throughout the machines. Stories provide a narrative helpful in describing machines to audiences, in addition to providing an additional design constraint. Student teams were asked to compose the “story” of their machine by starting at the end. In class, each 16-person team was given a giant notepad and marker and asked to brainstorm as many types or uses of zippers as they could. Once each team had a list, they were asked to pick one zipper idea around which to build a story. Next, they were asked to come up with an event that might have immediately preceded the zipping of their chosen zipper. The
process of picking an event that immediately preceded the previous event continued until each team had constructed an entire story from the end to the beginning, with at least 20 steps. The work of designing machine modules to represent the story was divided among four subteams.
Teams reported their progress on a class Google site. Each team was given access to a page from which they could create and edit subpages as desired. Teams were asked to include descriptions, pictures, and short videos documenting their progress. All the projects can be viewed at https://sites.google.com/a/email.latech.edu/dome/home,
Students evaluated themselves and their team members in five categories of team contribution on the CATME (www.catme.org) peer evaluation system. Students showed meaningful improvement in several categories: contributing to the team’s work, interacting with teammates, keeping the team on track, and expecting quality.
In a survey afterwards, many students reported that the open-ended nature of the project was very challenging. They reported that it helped them develop skills such as manufacturing and design, and helped them learn to work with new people. For most students, this was the first project where they were not allowed to select their own teams.
Feedback from the anonymous end-of-course survey included: “I love the project, and I learned many things” and “Despite how much time and effort this project required, I enjoyed crafting it and was very proud of the end result.” The instructor also learned many things and was very proud of the end result.
Adding a Rube Goldberg machine design project to the Dynamics of Machine Elements class was a valuable learning experience for both the students and the instructor. As there are few papers describing Rube Goldberg projects at an upper-class level, this paper contributes to the project-based learning literature by providing evidence-based best practices for successful implementation that could be used at other institutions.
Marisa K. Orr is an assistant professor of engineering and science education and mechanical engineering at Clemson University. Shawn S. Jordan is an associate professor of engineering at Arizona State University. This article is adapted from “A Rube Goldberg Approach to Teaching Dynamics of Machine Elements,” in the fall 2019 issue of Advances in Engineering Education.
Image courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory