Imagine this: Your child drops a marble into a paper towel tube chute. The marble slides down and hits a chain of dominoes. The dominoes fall, and the final one hits a small toy car. The car pushes a dog treat off the edge of the table. Success! The family dog snatches up the treat when it falls to the floor.
This is an example of a Rube Goldberg machine, a complex contraption designed to achieve a simple task. It’s actually listed in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as an adjective: “doing something simple in a very complicated way that is not necessary.”
Here are some machines that:
You might recognize Rube Goldberg machines from TV or movies. Some high school students build them in science class, and some test their engineering skills by competing in Rube Goldberg machine contests.
The contraption itself was conceived by Rube Goldberg—a cartoonist, author, and sculptor—in a series of cartoons. He created the satirical cartoons to poke fun at society’s love of technology.
These machines might not be practical, but they’re definitely fun, creative, and educational! Building a Rube Goldberg machine is a great hands-on activity for all ages, plus it encourages children to flex their STEM muscles.
If you’d like to help your child build his or her own Rube Goldberg machine, here are the instructions!
Identify Your Tasks
Environmentally friendly tasks:
- Turn a light off
- Crush a pop can
- Drop a bottle in a recycling bin
- Water a plant
- Plant seeds in a pot of soil
- Pop a balloon
- Fill a glass with water
- Shut a door
- Squeeze toothpaste onto a toothbrush
- Turn off an alarm clock
Choose your Supplies
- Aluminum foil
- Plastic containers
- Water bottles
- Toilet paper or paper towel tubes for chutes
- Cereal boxes to use like dominoes
- Pop cans, soup cans, or batteries to roll
- Golf balls
- Toy cars
- Cups or bowls
Setting Up Your Machine
- Work with your child to choose a simple task for your machine to achieve.
- Sketch your machine before building it. It can help your child choose the right materials and assemble a mechanism that works.
- Gather the supplies you need to make the machine. Challenge your child to find at least three recyclable materials. Keep in mind that you may want to add or leave out certain materials during the building process.
- Assemble the different parts of your machine, helping your child test each part before moving to the next. For inspiration, take a look at the following ideas:
Drop a marble down a paper towel tube so that it knocks over a chain of cereal boxes and batteries, too.
Set up a pulley system using a piece of string, two plastic cups, a milk jug filled with water, and a weight such as a battery.
Roll a piece of aluminum foil into a ball and tie a piece of string around it. Tie the other end of the string to a chair or other object. Pull the ball backward and release it so it bumps into a soup can. You can set up the soup can to roll into a chain of cereal boxes.
Set a half-full water bottle near the edge of the table so that it pours into a funnel when the water bottle is knocked over. Place a plant underneath the funnel to create a watering mechanism.
Testing Your Machine
- Once the machine is complete, test it to see if it works.
- Take notes on which parts of the machine work and which ones do not. Does it achieve the task? If something doesn’t work, what can you do to make it work next time?
Remember to take a photo or video of your machine! Share it on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube and use the hashtag #RubeGoldbergCA.