With a little of this and a little of that, students in Brian Ruplinger’s Physics II class at Waupaca High School learned this semester how to turn a simple task into a much more complex one.
Their task was to zip a zipper, and it was for this year’s Rube Goldberg Machine Contest.
The annual competition is named after Reuben Goldberg, the late Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist, inventor, sculptor and author who worked as an engineer for the city of San Francisco before becoming an office boy in the sports department of a San Francisco newspaper.
He began submitting drawings and cartoons to the editor, and his work was eventually published and syndicated.
Goldberg’s work as a cartoonist involved turning something like taking the cotton out of an aspirin bottle into a complicated task.
This is the third year Ruplinger’s class has competed in the annual contest, and many of the items were found in his classroom storage area.
“It’s all from home or what I have in my back room,” he said. “I’m amazed at how creative they come up with certain steps to create the goals.”
Last Friday, March 7, they took their machines to Waukesha County Technical College, where they competed in the contest.
With 19 students in his Physics II class this year, Ruplinger decided to divide them into two groups.
A total of 22 teams competed, and one of the WHS teams placed fifth in the competition.
Last year, there were about a dozen students in his class, and they built one machine that placed fourth.
“Every year is different,” Ruplinger said. “Last year, it was hammer a nail. The previous year, it was inflate a balloon and pop it.”
A minimum of 20 energy transfers – or steps – are required.
The students in his current class began brainstorming ideas last fall and then started building their machines in January.
Their themes were developed long before that, because Ruplinger knew what this year’s task would be before the end of the 2012-13 school year.
In fact, he finishes the school year with his Physics I students by having them do a smaller version of a Rube Golderg Machine that incorporates the upcoming theme.
As the students, who would be in his Physics II class this year, started thinking about it, two of them immediately came up with ideas for themes this year.
“I was thinking Batman,” said Holly Johnston.
Anthony Jensen thought of Dora the Explorer, the animated television series that was created when he and his classmates were youngsters.
One of the characters in the series is Backpack, which is why Jensen came up with that idea, since the task was to zip a zipper.
At the college level, the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest dates back to the late 1980s. It was expanded to the high school level in 1996 – the year many of this year’s senior class were born.
Ruplinger learned about the competition about five years ago during a conversation with his nephew.
“He was talking about one of the things he remembered most (about his high school physics class) was the Rube Goldberg Machine and going to the competition,” Ruplinger said.
The Waupaca Rotary Breakfast Club became the sponsor for the WHS teams and pays for their fees.
Instead of simply sitting in a classroom learning formulas, the students learn how to be creative and to work as a team, Ruplinger said.
They learn what it is like to work with different personalities and how to accept ideas and criticism, he said.
The Physics II class meets from 7-8:30 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday and every other Friday.
In January, the students started working on the machines on the Fridays they had class.
“I try to keep hands off because it’s their project,” Ruplinger said. “But once in a while, I help when I see them going astray or know something that helps them. Ninety-nine percent is them.”
As the day of the competition drew closer, students started working on it every day, including during their study halls.
The students left Waupaca at 5:45 a.m. Friday for the competition.
Before doing so, they had to break down both machines for transportation. The machines can be up to 6 cubic feet.
Several different regionals are held in Wisconsin, and Ruplinger chooses to take the students to Waukesha County Technical College.
Once they arrived there, they had about two hours to rebuild the two machines.
Moving the Batman machine turned out to not be as easy as the students thought it would be, he said.
“The first two runs were tough, but they did well on their last run, but by then, it was a little too late,” Ruplinger said.
The machines have to perform three times before judges.
Each machine must run for no more than two minutes per run, and teams have three minutes before the first run to explain their machines in a presentation.
Ruplinger said the project incorporates science, English, communication and technology education.
The students commented on the experience.
“Going to the contest taught me that consistency in these types of projects is the most important part,” said Mitch Molder.
Several students, including Sheena Landers, Craig Moloney and Shaun Plunkett, said the project taught them about teamwork and problem solving.
Patrick Snider said, “The Rube Goldberg project helped me become a stronger team player, and I learned how crucial it is to stay motivated and work hard each day of class to reach our goal.”
Bailey Wanty learned a lot about engineering.
Dakotah Revai said, “As somebody who plans to major in engineering next year, this project was extremely fun. It gave me a chance to problem solve and be creative, while further peaking my interest in engineering. After the competition Friday, I was very proud of my team for placing fifth of 22 teams. The last three months of work all came together on Friday, and we had a great time.”
Zander Neuville learned about engineering, problem solving and teamwork and is glad they were able to be part of the competition.
Johnston also said it was a great experience, and Jensen said, “As the last three months have passed, as a team we have grown together. On Friday, it all came together. We worked well as a team when we needed to. This project has enhanced my interest in engineering.”
For Caitlin Behm, the experience taught her to cooperate and not get discouraged when things do not work out.
Isaac Barden loved the project.
“The most profound effect it had on me was ingenuity. It’s really amazing what you can do with simple parts. Despite how badly it went when we actually got there, I’m glad we at least got it done and had it working,” he said. “As a junior, I look forward to passing on what I’ve learned to next year, getting them a much better result than we had.”
Nick Jungers enjoyed looking at the other machines at the competition.
“We worked so hard trying to find the best possible way to zip a zipper, and then when we work for three months and think we’ve figured out the best way to accomplish our goal … then to get there and see how all the other groups came up with vastly different ways to do the same thing was astounding. The whole gym just oozed creativity, and I am glad I was there to soak it all in,” he said.