Ahhh. We’ve returned from Chicago, eaten the tofurkey, and decked the halls. We’re listening to lots of holiday music, and there’s a beautiful inch of snow on the ground. I love December. After a hard-working semester, we relax the schedule a bit and try to work in something totally fun. Lost of holiday “classes” (gift wrapping, baking, etc.). But this year, it’s all about Mr. Goldberg, the master of “building a better mousetrap”-type contraptions.
As usual, I’m learning this along with the kids; I have no expertise in engineering or construction, and neither Jamie nor I could you call “handy.” So to begin, the kids and I’ve been watching YouTube videos of other folks’ Rube Goldberg contraptions. We have a notebook in which the kids can jot down any idea (no matter how crazy) that they’d like to try their hand at. So far, our favorite Rube Goldberg youtube video is OK Go’s “This Too Shall Pass.” I could watch this a zillion times and not get tired of it.
Week before last, I challenged the kids to build small things out of Lego, and then out of our new Contraptions set. I assigned a catapult, ramps, something that worked with wheels and axles, a pulley system – all separate projects, mainly to get them to understand that it’s not just the active part of the machine they have to think about, but the structure that supports it. This week, however, we plunged into an attempt to put machines together into a larger contraption. The kids focused on domino effects and ramps, and even put a tube in there to guide their ping-pong ball from the table to the floor. I tried to stay out of it, simply pulling out items as offerings to their project. I wanted to get them thinking beyond Lego and the Contraptions set. That’s still mainly what they used, but this is only our first attempt, after all.
But I couldn’t completely help myself. On the side, I put together a little swinging action, suspending one of their Lego mini-figures from a noose, and causing it to launch from one plank and swing into a ping-pong ball on the other, putting that object in motion. I offered it up to the kids as a part of their project, but Ian said, “Mom, we really want this just to be ours.” Sigh. Wisdom there. So I backed off and cleaned something.
When they got everything ready, we began the trials, videoing each take, as Mythbusters taught us to do. Even though this is very simple contraption, it turned out to be much more tricky than any of us expected. It took the kids 15 tries to get the whole thing to work, and there were revisions and Frustration, especially from Ian. We had to take 5 and remind ourselves again and again that the failures make up the large majority of this type of project. Once Ian removed his expectation that his contraption would actually work from beginning to end, things became easier.
This is only the first of what I hope to be several machines that the kids build over the coming months, culminating in something a bit bigger; I’ve challenged them to ultimately build something that expands the two floors of our house. We may need to bring in other sciency-type minds to make this work, but it’s all good. We’ll figure it out as we go. I plan to let this be their science “curriculum” for the remainder of the year, so we have plenty of time. While the kids were building their machine, I went online and ordered a mean set of pulleys, complete with weights and a spring scale. It is my dream that they will somehow incorporate these into their future Rube Goldberg. If you have ideas that you want to suggest, please post them in my comments! I’d love to share them with the kids.
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