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Wauwatosa students create Rube Goldberg machine

Members of Project Lead the Way entered machine into regional competition

Harrison Fangmann (left) paints Project Lead the Way's Rube Goldberg machine while Patrick Jenson (middle) demonstrates the parachute system to Mitchell Merz (left).

Harrison Fangmann (left) paints Project Lead the Way's Rube Goldberg machine while Patrick Jenson (middle) demonstrates the parachute system to Mitchell Merz (left). Photo By Michael Runyon

March 4, 2013

Wauwatosa students engineered a machine to answer what sounds like the beginning a bad joke: how many contraptions does it take to hammer a nail?

The students, members of Wauwatosa's Project Lead the Way, designed a Rube Goldberg machine they entered into a regional competition held at Waukesha County Technical College March 1 to answer the question.

A Rube Goldberg machine is a series of small continuous machines meant to carry momentum from one point to another. If you've seen the band OK Go's popular music video, "This too shall pass" or played the game Mousetrap, you've interacted with such a machine.

The students hammered the nail with 20 steps, including a hydraulic cylinder, an electric motor moving a sheet, multiple hinges and latches and all manners of marble rolling.

Art and science

As if designing a series of simple machines wasn't enough, the students had to give the project an overall theme and present a story alongside their contraptions.

Many thematic ideas including a reference to the video game Portal were thrown around when they started the conceptual layout in August. The team eventually landed on a science fiction theme revolving around an astronaut's space escapades.

The story was a series of references to various science fiction movies and shows. The "astronaut" went through Stargates, dematerialized into the Matrix, was chased by Star Wars UFO models and eventually crashed into an alien mother ship, much like the end of the film Independence Day.

Last year's design was themed around Batman and won second place.

The science fiction multi-machine platform was a STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Art and Mathematics) project. The team had two art students oversee the project.

"You try to just have a similar color scheme and keep everything relatable," said Harrison Fangmann, one of the artists. "Part of the thing is that each piece is kind of different but you have to see it as a whole."

Leading the way

While Wauwatosa didn't place high enough to make it to the state competition this year, the students still received a prize. The Milwaukee School of Engineering has agreed to give a $1,000 scholarship to every student who participates and for each year they participated.

Besides the scholarships, parent and Coach Jerry Merz said that he saw each team member grow vastly more skilled at problem solving.

"We're doing more and more things with technology and using technology to get kids who are interested in doing hands-on engineering," he added.

The teams were judged using a rubric that not only tested the machine, which had to complete two perfect runs, but team participation and togetherness.

Teams can win or lose based on the discussions they have and how involved each team member is. Wauwatosa's team hasn't seen the score cards on team participation yet, but they were happy to be at the competition and see the machines.

"No matter how your machine goes, even if it loses there, it's still a cool machine," team member Patrick Jenson said.

The Rube Goldberg project is a cog in the machine that is Project Lead the Way. This year, Merz started the Leo Club, a group that organizes service projects similar to those of their counterpart the Lion's Club.

The Leo Club has been working on ideas for service projects that would include heightened eye safety awareness in the middle and high schools and mentoring and creating special tables for the middle school Lego robotics competitions. They are currently working on creating machines like marshmallow cannons for other schools in the district.

The Rube Goldberg Machine will be presented during a Wauwatosa West High School lunch and might see a few more presentations before it's decommissioned and used in next year's competition.

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