Olentangy Valley News

Complex machines hold lessons -- even when they fail

Enlarge Image Buy This Photo
Students at Heritage Elementary School watch as their Rube Goldberg machine performs tasks last Thursday, Dec. 19, at the school. Students have been planning and designing the machines for weeks.

The plan: A block is removed, freeing a rubber ball, which rolls down a ramp and strikes a toy car, setting off a long line of dominoes, which pushes a marble down a paper-towel tube and across a wooden bridge, knocking over more dominoes that climb a stack of books and kick over a tiny bucket, dropping food into the tank of Squirt, the class turtle.

Sound a little too complicated? That's kind of the point.

Fifth-graders at Heritage Elementary School in Lewis Center designed and built Rube Goldberg machines to close out the month of December. The machines are named after the cartoonist famous for drawing contraptions with far too many moving parts for the simple task they're designed to accomplish.

Still can't picture it? Think about the board game Mouse Trap or the devices set up by Kevin McCallister in Home Alone.

Teacher Amy Smith said the projects, which took a few days to set up and a few weeks to design, were meant to teach students about math and science -- specifically Isaac Newton's three laws of motion.

She had greater goals for the project, too, such as teaching students how to work in large groups and explaining that failure is not always a bad thing.

"We've been talking about making friends with failure and seeing failure as a steppingstone," she said.

Smith said the students would run into roadblocks when designing the convoluted machines and were taught to view their missteps as data to be used to correct the problem.

The project also had the students shouting "validity!" when they reached the same result three times. Smith said it helped teach them that the results of an experiment must be repeatable to be scientifically valid.

Ethan Hunter, 11, said the project taught him the value of perseverance.

"I definitely learned it's OK to fail," he said. "If you fail once, you've got to keep going."

The project also fit nicely into the Olentangy Local School District's focus on offering complex, long-term group projects, which dovetails with Common Core educational standards.

Smith said the project was a kind of introduction to the type of work the students will be challenged with as they move on from elementary school.

"Next year we send them to middle school and they've got to be able to work together (and) persevere," she said.

Naina Karnati, 11, said her group worked together to brainstorm the best ideas for the project, ultimately coming up with the plan to feed Squirt.

"We didn't come up with this idea first," she said. "We did another one before, but we wanted to improve it, so we did this instead."

Naina helped launch her group's machine last Thursday, Dec. 19, at the school, while two other third-grade classes and parents watched.

With the help of a few extra shoves when a domino didn't fall or a marble stopped short, it worked as designed.