The Kid Competitors in This Rube Goldberg Machine Contest Are Cooler Than You
Contestants in Argonne National Laboratory’s Rube Goldberg Machine Contest might take at least 20 steps to zip a zipper, but they use bike wheels, mousetraps, and a bit of smoke to do it.
In the sunny atrium of the Chicago Children’s Museum, the crowd leaned in to get a close-up view of the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, and the Great Wall of China. Each miniature landmark, assembled by students at Hoffman Estates High School, was part of an elaborate mechanical network designed with a single purpose: to zip a zipper. As the judges looked on, a student set the contraption’s chain reaction in motion. Music blaired, and a bike wheel began to turn (a nod to the Tour de France), setting off a running of the (paper) bulls, which in turn triggered the tilt of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. But coming up on the grand finale—the zipping of the zipper—the scent of smoke filled the air. A student quickly reached in to correct the problem, a malfunctioning drill motor, resulting in a deduction of points.
Although his team had been working on this entry to Argonne National Laboratory’s Rube Goldberg Machine Contest since August, student Emilio Guzman remained upbeat. “We’ve had better runs,” he said. “If anything, it’s one little mistake here and there. We just had some bad luck.”
Emilio’s team was one of 11 that qualified for this year’s contest, which is held to promote careers in science and engineering to future generations. The judges eyed each machine in action and scored them based on theme, creativity, humor, use of everyday objects, and number of steps to complete this year’s assigned task (20 is the minimum).
While teams from Maine South and Chicago Christian High Schools showed off their engineering prowess by using everything from clocks to pounding bass speakers to power their machines, creativity really shone through in the team themes. One team built a multilevel, 360-degree machine based around Tom and Jerry, while another constructed an enormous 26-step machine that ticked through the alphabet, starting with an airplane, balloon, and catapult and ending with a yo-yo and zipper.
Reavis High School student Kevin Ho admitted he was intimidated by the other schools’ towering machines. “They were so big,” he said, “but they’re more prone to mistakes.” The Reavis entry, barely 3 feet tall at its highest, embodied a Super Mario Bros. theme, complete with green pipes, snapping Piranha Plants, and a small Yoshi. While other machines veered dangerously close to the two-minute time limit to complete their task, this one went from start to zipper in just over 15 seconds. Ho claimed that the swift simplicity of the Reavis machine made it “much more efficient and accurate.” He was right—his team won first prize and the chance to go to the national competition in April.
First-place winners also get to tour Argonne’s facilities and eat lunch with its scientists. This is a key part of the contest, said Meridith Bruozas, Argonne’s manager of education programs and outreach. “[Our] mission is to develop the next generation of scientists and engineers. We see [the] Rube Goldberg [contest] as a great opportunity to really get kids thinking about principals that we can expand upon later.” Meridith noted that Rube Goldberg contestants often go on to pursue internships at Argonne and careers at labs across the country—one of her coworkers is a former contestant.
Elaine Bentley, manager of public programs at the Chicago Children’s Museum, knows that the museum’s 18-year partnership with Argonne doesn’t just benefit high schoolers. It also gives the museum’s regular visitors, who range from age 0 to 9, the chance to see older kids get excited about science. “There is one thing [students] have to do: zip a zipper, [but] they can do it a million different ways,” she said. “And so it fits right in with what we do [at the museum]—kids [here] can always make something that’s their very own.”
Photos: Mark Lopez, Argonne National Laboratory
Emily Wachowiak is a Chicago-based writer and editor.