Archive for Sunday, February 25, 1996


February 25, 1996


Forget functionality. The name of the game was Rube Goldberg.

Kelly Catlin, a 16-year-old junior at Pomona High School, adjusted some tubing while senior Matt Kenyon fidgeted with fishing line. Brandi Keegan, another senior at the school west of Ottawa, positioned three dominoes just so.

Their team's task was simple enough: turn on a light bulb.

But as was true of the wacky creations of American cartoonist Rube Goldberg, the device these high school students designed for the Kansas University School of Engineering's annual Rube Goldberg competition this weekend was anything but simple.

After all, anyone can flip on a light switch.

But few can do it the way Catlin, Kenyon and Keegan did: a ball bearing, dropped through a tube, hit a stack of dominoes, which, when toppled, set off a mouse trap. The mouse trap opened a clothes pin, releasing a fishing line weighted with a wooden spool and a screw. The screw and spool dropped down and set off another mouse trap, which switched on a motor that cranked a chain that spun a tiny flashlight bulb into its socket.

The bulb was held in place and guided by a wad of chewing gum.

And voila: a glowing light bulb.

That is, if the fishing line dropped. Sometimes it didn't. Sometimes the ball bearing missed the dominoes completely. Sometimes it hit them but they didn't trip the mouse trap.

Of the half-dozen designs entered in the contest, most required last-minute adjustments, and sometimes even that wasn't enough.

"Shall we pray again?" a student from Turner High School in Kansas City, Kan., asked when her team's music box crank failed to tug hard enough on a light switch. The music box chimed the song "My Favorite Things."

Building bridges

The Rube Goldberg contest was one of seven student competitions held at the engineering school during the school's annual Engineering Expo, which featured science-oriented speakers, displays and contests Friday and Saturday at KU's Learned Hall.

Elsewhere in the building, students showed off audio speaker designs, built airplanes powered by mouse traps, and piled weights onto bridges built out of ice cream sticks and towers built out of notecards. For the bridges the result was, eventually, always the same: a splintering crunch of snapping wood.

KU engineering students demonstrated lighting and sound designs, plans for oil refineries and climate control systems -- all parts of the wonderful world of engineering that the school has promoted with annual exhibitions since 1911.

Outside the building, U.S. Marines displayed some of the profession's more deadly designs: a Tow 2 weapons system mounted on top of an olive drab Humvee. Some of the 385 students who showed up for the Expo crawled inside and on top of the vehicle and peered into the anti-tank weapon's tube.

The School of Engineering considers the Expo a recruiting tool, used to attract future engineers to the school, and the Society of Women Engineers focuses on promoting engineering among the visiting girls -- about 150 of those who attended.

"This is to expose the public and other college students to what engineers do," said Kerri Graunke, a KU senior from Prairie Village and president of the KU student chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. "I think it's important to let girls know that they are capable of doing it."

After graduation in May, she'll be going to work in California for Intel Corp., designing the ceramic housings for computer chips.

Inside Learned Hall, mechanical engineers were at a loss to explain the cramped, crowded and overheated competition rooms. That was, after all, something for civil engineers to fix.

Breakfast is served

Although most of the participants were high school juniors and seniors, Hillcrest School in Lawrence sent 46 third-graders with their own Rube Goldberg machines, like Kayla Frost's Automatic Lizard Assisted Breakfast Fixer.

She built it at home, "actually, with a little help from my mom," she said.

It included an old-fashioned alarm clock which, when it sounded, jiggled a rubber lizard that released a marble. The marble tipped a small box of cereal, and cereal poured into a waiting bowl. As the bowl filled and became heavier, it tipped a container of milk. The end result: breakfast is served.

Before the Expo, the students practiced explaining their projects.

"We see it as a communication opportunity," said Carol Abrahamson, a third-grade teacher at the school.

The displays and contests, though sometimes whimsical, had serious intents as well.

"It teaches them about working in groups and solving a problem, which is basically what engineering is all about" said Miles Martin, a physics and chemistry teacher from Kansas City's Turner High School.

Beyond that, the young engineers were asked to blend ingenuity with creativity.

Catlin, Kenyon and Keegan, from Pomona, spent about a month designing their light switch, and then decorating it with purple, yellow and red paint.

The contraption wasn't merely a marvel of roundabout inventiveness. It was also, in the spirit of Goldberg, a work of art.

"Whether or not it works, it's still the most colorful," Catlin said.

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