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Boxes of Brainpower Teach Students STEM Concepts

The path to an engineering career for Lowell High Schoolfreshmen may be inspired by rat traps, Domino pieces, a miniature doll in a pink two-piece swimsuit or a white bunny getting a ride in the trailer of a John Deere cart. All of these items were used in the school’s annual Rube Goldberg Machine contest that aimed to get students to learn about creativity and STEM concepts.

Nearly 200 ninth-grade physics students on 48 teams created Goldberg-inspired contraptions designed to break a pretzel nugget. The teams had to make their machines inside a 2-by-2-by-2-foot box and use 10 steps or more to smash the pretzel to pieces. Electricity couldn’t be used, the process had to include the use of least five simple machine concepts and nothing could fly out of the box (safety first!). Students submitted reports and diagrams explaining how they used gravity, friction, inclined planes, kinetic energy, resistance and other types of STEM design engineers use.

“It’s really similar to industry,” said Rick Mushing, STEM consultant for Kent ISD and one of the judges. “If I was going to design a big line, it’s similar to this.”

Lowell is one of a few districts in Kent County that holds a Rube Goldberg competition. Goldberg is famous for creating complicated gadgets that perform simple tasks using unusual objects, like those of the Mouse Trap children’s game, where players try to get a steel ball through a machine with a swinging boot, a bathtub, a basket and rickety stairs. Other Goldberg machine contests have included assembling a hamburger, watering a plant and zipping a zipper.

About 100 parents and family attended the event to see how the project that had driven some of their sons and daughters crazy while making it did in the contest. Students got three tries to break the nugget with their chain-reaction machines in front of judges who were local engineers and scientists.

Avery Lupton, Nick Brown and Mitchell Allen went with a construction theme

A Song, a Little Smell, a Lot of Stress

The aroma of hot glue filled the air where Kenny Stump and Mitch Tower were working. They were having trouble keeping pieces together and had tried “about 30 times,” Kenny said.

Besides hot glue, a lot of tape and paint were used to keep machines working and make boxes look good. Themes for boxes included a circus (where an Iron Man doll holding up a barbell helped keep the show going), a construction scene (with the students wearing hardhats and using a trailer hitch for nugget busting), and a farm (where a little white bunny rode a small John Deere tractor while a remix of “Old MacDonald” played).

“Sometimes it doesn’t play the tune,” said Courtney Lubbers, who was frustrated because her team couldn’t “get the stupid button to work.”

Feelings about the contest were mixed. “”I love it, I love it, I love it” and “God, I hate this,” were some of the comments heard throughout the three rooms used for the competition at the Lowell Freshman Center.

A few students also have said they might consider being an engineer or scientist because they liked the project so much, and parents often say the same things, teacher Trish Miller said.

Karleigh Mrozinski’s team went with a jungle safari theme and got a bit emotional when they were being judged. “Oh my god, I couldn’t breathe,” Mrozinski said. “We were very nervous.”

“I’m dizzy,” team member Marlon Coe said. “I would have cried if it didn’t work. I had to walk around. I didn’t want to see it.”

Running Around Running the Show

Directing the contest was The Energizer Bunny, a.k.a. Trish Miller, a freshman science teacher. She scurried around nonstop on her high heels, standing on chairs to make announcements, talking to judges and seemingly having a blast.

“I do this because, in our society, our kids need to know how to compete and cooperate with both skill and knowledge. I cannot stress how strongly I believe this,” said Miller, a former research scientist. “They also learn how to use their knowledge of physics to build a chain reaction machine and explain the science behind it.”

Team member Jade Williams said the project taught him about different types of energy, gravity and stress, especially since his team had broken three mousetraps before the contest and just finished making the final one in second hour. From the last-minute scrambling came lessons in teamwork, meeting deadlines and procrastination.

“I don’t think they had anything in the boxes two weeks ago,” Freshman Center Assistant Principal Dustin Cichocki said with a smile.

Maria Hart found out how it felt to have her finger snapped by a mousetrap. She was resetting the trap for a test run when it deployed. “It really hurt,” she said, holding her sore finger.

Once finished, the lonely boxes that taught the important STEM concepts sat silent on the tables, broken pretzel nuggets littering their bottoms, preparing to pass on to Rube Goldberg heaven. “I didn’t even want to look at the box anymore,” Courtney said.

“I’m done with it now,” said Cody McGee. “I’m done with it. I want to bury it.”


Rube Goldberg bio

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Linda Odette
Linda Odette
Linda Odette is a freelance writer and editor with more than 30 years of experience in journalism. She’s worked primarily as an editor in feature departments at newspapers in West Michigan, including the Grand Rapids Press, the Muskegon Chronicle and the Holland Sentinel. She lives in East Grand Rapids near the Eastown edge, has a teenage son and a daughter in college. Read Linda's full bio or email Linda.


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