Physics students build machines in Rube Goldberg style

Physics students build machines in Rube Goldberg style

Dec. 6, 2012
Contact: Karen B. Eldridge, Director of Communications

They titled it “Back to Basics,” but the compound machine designed by three Maryville College students for a recent Rube Goldberg Machine Contest was a fairly elaborate device.

But with Rube Goldberg, that’s the whole idea.

The students, enrolled in Physics 201: General Physics, sent marbles on a journey that involved planes, dominoes, funnels, levers, pulleys and weights. The journey ended with the activation of a small panel of LED lights.


“We spent about four days constructing it,” explained C. Ryan Oaks ’15, a sophomore mathematics major from Sweetwater, Tenn. “We’re very happy with the results – happy that the lights worked.”

Oaks’ fellow teammates were J. Matthew Ridley ’15 and Carmina de Guia ’15. Four other teams of three students built compound machines in Rube Goldberg style, completing an assignment given to them by Maryville College physics instructor Irene Guerinot.

The “Dancing with Wolves” machine, assembled by Molley Welch ’15, Kayla Walker ’15 and Taylor Huskey ’15, ultimately extinguished a fire. “Santa’s Workshop,” the creation of Shawn Richards ’15, Erin Gray ’15 and Kendhyl Rodgers ’15, lowered Christmas presents, and video game character Mario falls to his “death” from the top of a flagpole in the “Super Goldberg Brothers” machine built by Sean Yoder ’15, W. Payne Fisher ’15 and Coty Willocks ’15.

Popping a balloon was the ultimate objective for the “Classroom Fun” machine created by Nick Perone ’14, Joe Brooks ’14 and Dakota Jenkins ’15.

“[The Rube Goldberg Machine Contest] is an incredibly useful exercise for students who are planning to become engineers,” Guerinot said. “It shows them the challenges and pitfalls of working with machines.”

Rube Goldberg was a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, sculptor and author. Despite his education as an engineer, he became best known for the crazy mechanisms illustrated in his cartoons.

“A Rube Goldberg contraption – an elaborate set of arms, wheels, gears, handles, cups and rods, put in motion by balls, canary cages, pails, boots, bathtubs, paddles and live animals – takes a simple task and makes it extraordinarily complicated,” reads the official Rube Goldberg website.

The machine contest bearing his name was first organized in 1949 by two engineering fraternities at Purdue University. Today, students at colleges, universities and high schools from around the country compete in the annual contest. An international online contest for children ages 11 to 14 was launched this year.

Past competitions have called for inventions that assemble a hamburger, mark and cast an election ballot, and sharpen a pencil.

Guerinot said this is the second year she has required her Maryville College physics students to work together to build a machine in Rube Goldberg style.

“I require that the finished projects have a minimum of four simple machines, and six steps or stages,” she explained. “And the machine has to work for a minimum of 10 seconds and maximum of five minutes.”

In addition to putting their machine to the test in the class, students are required to describe to their peers and instructor the applicable physics concepts.

Oaks and his teammates posted equations on their machine, signifying the concepts demonstrated along the way.

He said the “basics” in the name of their machine referred to a few basic equations that are foundational to understanding physics: potential and kinetic energy, transfer of energy and gravitational force, for example.

“I like to build things, but I don’t generally like group work,” Oaks said. “However, this assignment was very fun. I enjoyed it.”

Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the fall 2016 semester is 1,197.