Students make like Rube Goldberg
WILLIAMSTOWN – The domino theory, it was proven in the advanced placement physics class Wednesday morning at Williamstown High School, has more than one meaning.
The rectangular tiles are an inherent part of any respectable Rube Goldberg machine, being stood up in closely spaced lines as a source of potential energy. The slightest touch applied to the end domino knocks down the entire line in a cascade you can’t look away from.
But the line has the stability of a house of cards in a breezy room.
After another clatter of falling tiles, Quinton Fleming went to work standing them back up as he got his team ready for the Rube Goldberg machine demonstration, a project that had taken weeks and made up a significant portion of their final term marks in Jon Wheeler’s class.
“I used to think dominos were the coolest thing ever,” he muttered. “Not anymore.”
Across the room, the leader of the opposing team (called just Team 1), Alyssa Brashear looked around quizically. “What happened to the red ball?” she asked, referring to a superball that was an essential part of her team’s machine.
Unlike many of her contemporaries, Brashear was acquainted with the Rube Goldberg machine concept.
“I saw it on ‘America’s Got Talent,'” she said.
Fleming, Team 2’s leader, said it reminded him of Tom and Jerry cartoons.
Goldberg said his machines were designed to expend the maximum effort for minimum results.
The two devices took up most of the classroom, including ramps, strings and pulleys, weights, a candle, bicycle wheels, a lot of duct tape and many paper cups. Team 1’s machine included a 16-pound bowling ball, and Team 2 had a pendulum astride which was a 3D-printed skeleton named “Skelly.”
Wheeler said he’s used the idea as a teaching tool for five years, starting out at Ravenswood High School and bringing it to Williamstown this year. It’s a hands-on application of physical laws, it’s fun and it’s competitive. It was also an invitation to creative ingenuity – the only parameters were that the students design a machine that used nine steps or more to crush an aluminum can and drop it into a recycling bin.
“These are advanced placement physics students,” he said. “Theoretically, they are the 12 brightest students in the building.”
As the judges arrived, the team leaders took them through the concepts they’d brought to life, explaining the actions of each step leading from a small action – the emptying of water from a drinking cup, dropping a small ball into a container – to the grand finale, an action with enough force to crush a metal can.
Both devices worked, with judges and students watching the cascade of energy run through the courses – both required brief interventions to keep things going – and successfully crushed and disposed of the can.
Fleming said he learned something important from the process.
“What will go wrong is something that hasn’t gone wrong before,” he said.
Brashear also garnered a lesson.
“When things don’t work, ditch the idea and move on,” she said.
At a glance
Rube Goldberg machines
¯ Made famous by artist Rube Goldberg, who drew cartoons of complex actions to achieve simple ends.
¯ Added to the Random House dictionary in 1966, defined in part as “deviously complex and impractical.”