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What can a Rube Goldberg-style contraption teach kids about engineering?

Learning engineering in a whimsical way-Lee A. Tolbert Community Academy students build Rube Goldberg-style contraptions

Employees from engineering firm Garver sneak in some STEM concepts to students while they build machines designed with fun in mind.
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Employees from engineering firm Garver sneak in some STEM concepts to students while they build machines designed with fun in mind.

When you dumped coffee into your coffee maker this morning and flipped the switch on, a few minutes later you probably had a steaming cup of Joe.

That’s what machines do. You flip a switch or push a button or pull a lever and the machine does what that machine does. Most of us have become so accustomed to machines working for us that we don’t pay much attention to how they do what they do.

On Wednesday, students at Lee A. Tolbert Community Academy were challenged to see what kind of machines they could build during the Garver Chain Reaction Challenge, A STEM-centered program sponsored by Garver, a nationwide engineering firm with offices in Overland Park.

The machines were Rube Goldberg-style contraptions, or chain reaction machines. Cartoonist Rube Goldberg was known for his drawings of whimsical machines. The kind where a mouse nibbles on a piece of cheese, which triggers a bowling ball to start rolling, which lights a candle, and so on, and so on until the contraption pours food into a bowl to feed a cat.

By building their contraptions out of blocks and strings, balls, funnels and other low-tech items, the students were being introduced to concepts of engineering-in a whimsical way.

“You come up with unique challenges to see how forces and gravity and energy can solve the problems and create so many exciting things in our culture,” said Mark Williams, a senior project manager with Garver. “That’s what we do as engineers.”

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