Take a paper towel tube, a cardboard box and a plastic fruit basket, and you might have this week’s recycling. If you’re at a Junior Makers program at the Olathe Public Library, you have the makings of a machine to guide a ping-pong ball around curves and down inclines.
A group of first- through fifth-graders gathered at the library’s downtown branch Wednesday night to learn about cartoonist Rube Goldberg and his famously complicated machines that were intended to accomplish simple tasks.
Most of the kids had never heard of Goldberg before, and children’s librarian Jennifer Smart showed them a cartoon that, among other things, used a boxing glove on a spring as part of a machine to turn pages on a music stand.
“I just hope they’ll learn something about Rube Goldberg that they didn’t know before, (and get away) the idea you can take something simple and be creative with maybe a little bit of engineering along the way,” Smart said.
About 18 kids participated, working in groups to create their own machines, using basic engineering tools such as pulleys and levers. The idea behind STEAM program like Junior Makers is to introduce kids to different ways of using science, technology, engineering, arts and math.
Nine-year-old Rylin Kurtz of Olathe liked the arts and crafts aspect of the workshop and also embraced the challenges of working with a group.
“Sometimes we can’t get along. It’s hard coming up with an idea and making sure everyone has a fair job,” she said.
Her friend, 6-year-old Zoey Wenger, said one issue they had was curving their ramp just the way they wanted.
“We can’t get this at the right angle,” Zoey said, as she adjusted a wood block.
Creativity was required, as groups tried stacking library books at different heights to support their ramps.
Several kids discovered that paper towel tubes are too big to allow a pingpong ball to roll through the middle freely. That didn’t stop them; the kids just cut the tubes in half, lengthwise, to get the ramp they wanted.
Recycled materials dominated the supplies. Along with the paper towel tube, kids used plastic fruit baskets to catch balls at the bottom of the ramps. Three-ring binders became shorter ramps, and binder clips attached to some string became weights and pulleys.
Some participants used wood blocks like dominoes to set off a chain reaction. Others used the same blocks to create a border to keep their ping-pong balls on the right course to the next part of the machine.
The creative leeway also allowed kids of a variety of ages to enjoy the activity.
“Whatever we do, I try to make it so first-graders can do it, and fifth-graders can also enjoy it,” Smart said.
At the end, the kids showed off their creations to each other with a test run. Not all went as planned. Some stalled halfway through, but some completed their run successfully.
No one was too disappointed. The sample video they watched, featuring a much more complicated machine, noted that its creator had failed 121 times before getting a test run where everything went right.