Complicated but fun: learning about energy with eggs, balloons, marbles and more

Rube Goldberg-like machines teach more than science

The setup, from left: Brooklyn Haywood, Lilah Cone, Clara Velting and Ally Hollern

Why go directly from point A to point B when taking the scenic route can be so much more interesting?

That’s what fourth-graders in Stuart Kohl’s science class at Murray Lake Elementary learned recently when they constructed their own

Kalob Hickman places one toy car at the bottom of an inclined track as classmate Clay Inman waits to release another one at the top

Rube Goldberg-inspired machines. That’s “a complicated device that does a simple task,” explained Levi VanLaan.

Like a glass of water pourer. Or an egg cracker.

Or a balloon popper. “At least that’s what we hope it will do,” said Clay Inman.

“We’ve failed at it four times, but we keep trying,” added Kalob Hickman.

On the other side of the room, Kaylee Stein suspended a cereal box by a string and worked to balance a fidget spinner on one corner of the box. The goal, she explained, “is to have something hit (the spinner) so it falls, which makes the box tip over and pour the cereal.”

It’s all about transfer of energy, said Ally Hollern. Her group was working to crack an egg that would, if the setup worked, be toppled from a cardboard pillar when a toy car zooming down a ramp would crash into a motionless car at the bottom, sending that one careening into the pillar.

Components of the machines ranged from items on hand from other projects, such as lengths of plastic rain gutter, old textbooks, dominoes, marbles, string and tape, to articles from home such as empty cereal boxes, baking pans and aluminum foil.

Teacher Stuart Kohl

“The kids always amaze me with the ideas they come up with,” Kohl said. “Every year I witness ideas that I never would have thought of. I really enjoy giving the students the freedom to use their creativity. I don’t think there is enough chance for that in education lately.”

Science, Meet Soft Skills

“It’s probably the most engaged they are all school year,” said Kohl, who has led the project in his classes for three years. “I encourage students to do it at home, and I’ve had quite a few do that.”

The Rube Goldberg project is part of teacher Stuart Kohl’s lesson on transfer of energy

The project is part of the fourth-grade physical science unit on energy and waves using Next Generation Science Standards.

Besides science, the project allows students to practice soft skills such as creativity, problem-solving and teamwork.

“It’s great to see the students working together in teams and problem-solving,” Kohl said. “One of my main goals in education is to create problem-solvers. That’s something the world will always need.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.

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