During a March 3 face-off among innovative young engineers, bowls of Cocoa Puffs, Cheerios, and Lucky Charms met their match in the 2018 Rube Goldberg Machine contest, which challenged middle and high school teams to pour a bowl of cereal.
Easy as that sounds, it’s not such a simple task in the Rube Goldberg world.
Goldberg was an award-winning engineer-turned-cartoonist known for satirizing machine design. He believed most people prefer complexity rather than a simple, direct path to accomplish a goal.
“Machines are a symbol of man’s capacity for exerting maximum effort to achieve minimal results,” he once wrote.
Tasked with devising a Goldberg-esque sequence using as many hilarious, superfluous steps as possible, visions of overflowing cereal bowls have filled the engineering minds of contestants for the past several months.
Finally, the machines had their day at Olathe West, where contestants showcased their work in two divisions. Middle school teams competed from Chisolm Trail, Indian Woods, New Mark, and Hocker Grove, while Olathe West and Olathe Northwest were the only two high school teams.
Emulating Goldberg’s satirical lead, designs were only limited by a team’s collective imagination — along with a few contest guidelines that set the stage for the groups of kids to combine robotics knowledge and engineering savvy with a gamut of everyday materials.
The hands-on projects used lots of duct tape, cardboard boxes, Legos and Lincoln logs, cheap farm-animal figurines, Hot Wheels tracks, connect toys, batteries, a skateboard, a bowling bowl and, of course, copious amounts of cereal.
Each team’s machine operated with elaborate systems of levers, pulleys, ramps, windmills, and other cleverly designed apparatuses to achieve the final objective — simply pouring a bowl of cereal.
“This event brings out the engineering mindset and the ability to innovate,” said Trinda Wheeler, Olathe West’s Green Tech Academy facilitator. “These students create things that never existed before. I also love seeing how many young women are here.
“It’s been a goal of the Olathe School District to encourage young women in STEM fields and to narrow the gender gap. The possibilities and potential of all of these students is infinite.”
David Haines, an Industrial Technology teacher at Chisolm Trail Middle School and Goldberg Contest leader, added: “They’ve all grown in so many ways through this project. The eighth-graders were mentors to sixth-graders. Together, they came up with an idea and followed it through. They grew in leadership skills and belief in themselves. The possibilities are endless for them.”
The invention process wasn’t all fun and laughs nor was the road to competition without a few bumps. Several teams found getting their elaborate machines to consistently pour cereal was a challenge.
“It was really fun to design, but when it failed it was frustrating, because you had to figure out what went wrong,” Chisholm Trail sixth-grader Ryan Friend said. “We had to add something new to the design every time to make it pour.”
The Olathe Northwest morning-themed machine also went through extensive redesign. Team members competed in their flannel pajamas (and solved last-minute problems through trial and error).
“None of the original steps we designed are in our final machine,” ONW senior Hildana Abamegal said.
Fellow senior Michaela Harding added, “We learned a lot about getting the parts to coordinate.”
Junior Gracey Hiebert concluded, “All of the steps were a lot harder than we thought. Everyone was so happy when we got the steps to work.”
Designing and building a successful Rube Goldberg machine included an extra layer of complexity for the Olathe West OWLS team.
“Our team members spoke four different languages,” said Jenny Havermann, Olathe West ELL teacher and team leader for the OWLS and their “Connect Toy Machine.” “English is not native for any of them. The biggest challenge was getting the students to work together on this project as a team when they were speaking multiple languages. It took communication and perseverance to complete it.”
Competitors were judged in three categories: teamwork, creativity, and the spirit of hilarious invention.
“The third is the spirit of Rube making us laugh,” said Tiffany Coleman, contest judge and Black & Veatch Department Manager.
New Mark Middle School’s farm-themed machine rated high on the laughter scale. Decked out in overalls, plaid shirts, and straw hats, the farmer-engineers counted on goats, cows, chickens, horses, and tractors to help make successful cereal pours.
But it was the Indian Woods Middle School Wolves, with a grocery-store themed machine called Wolf Mart, that took first place for Division 1.
Olathe Northwest poured Cocoa Puffs all way to first place in Division 2.
Hocker Grove Middle School Team
Progression for “The Life of Cereal” Machine
1. Put marble in cloud tube.
2. Marble rolls down tube.
3. Marble hits ball in cardboard tray.
4. Marble falls into tube.
5. Marble rolls into cardboard tray.
6. Marble falls into windmill, turning windmill.
7. Ball falls out of windmill into Sprite bottle.
8. Sprite bottle drops from string.
9. String pulls cereal box down.
10. Cereal pours into bowl.