Monday, May 14, 2018

Rube Goldberg Machinations

I'm a sucker for a good metaphor. I love a good metaphor like Hugh Jackman loves literally any script that will let him sing and dance.

It's because of this that I love the Rube Goldberg Machine project my class did for MakerFaire last year and is doing again this year.

At the most basic level, a Rube Goldberg machine is an incredibly complex series of actions and reactions that result in the completion of the most mundane activity. You know, like getting kids invested in learning dividing fractions, and then explaining why dividing fractions works. I sometimes feel like my classroom is just a series of Rube Goldberg machines running in tandem, while also all somehow part of a larger Rube Goldberg machine.

Because education isn't simple and it's never easy, you see. To that end, never trust anyone who says "just" before giving you advice to make your class better or more effective.

To back up, since we started in the middle *sings* a less good place to staaart *mercifully stops singing*, for the last three years my school has hosted a MakerFaire. It's a massive undertaking combining a science fair, TEDtalk symposium, film festival, and check-out-our-learning Open House. Students are invited to create their own projects, and teachers are inviting to create class projects. Last year, thanks to the wonderful OK Go video for "This Too Shall Pass", I decided my class would build a Rube Goldberg machine.

We learned a lot and I thought of ways the project could be improved over the course of the build, so I was excited to do it again this year.

Today we started our journey.

I broke my class up into eight groups of four students each. I choose the groups. Depending on the project and timeframe I'll let the kids choose their groups or I choose for them. This needs to be done quickly and in well-balanced groups, so I'll take the reigns for this part, thank you very much. I ordered the groups one through eight. Then I set them the challenge-

Thou shalt create a Rube Goldberg machine. Each group is responsible for a section of the machine, and each section must include at least two action/reactions. For added difficulty, each group must also ensure that their section of the machine connects with the sections on either side so that the machine requires no no NO human intervention once the initial reaction has been triggered. Your section must be started by the end of the previous section, and your section must end with the triggering of the following section. 
Dude. That's a lot. I admit that's a lot. And it's not easy. That's why I love it.

There's so very much engineering built into this project. If you leave students to their own devices, as I learned last year, they will design a machine that should be, if built properly, seventeen feet tall and uses gravity and marbles and that's all. Everything will be downhill, all the energy transfer points will be basic, and nothing will be interesting. So I get to show that music video and we take close looks at exactly what is happening. I focus in on the section below, from 0:42 - 0:50. Just eight seconds. Everything the kids need to know about what they should do happens in these eight seconds. Here, you watch. Again, 0:42, where it's cued up to already, through 0:50.

Did you see how much happened? How many different types of energy transfer there are right there? There's the rolling tube (inertia) which drops (gravity) causing a weight to release (gravity/pulley) which lifts the cupped lever (lever) which is holding a marble, returning the energy back to a height so everything can continue using gravity (gravity). In eight seconds.

Suddenly options open up. Suddenly we're having this detailed conversation about energy transfers and simple machines. They don't know the words, but I can give them the words. Those eight seconds gave them the ideas. Now we don't need to build this giant, tall behemoth. Now we've got variety. We've got choice. Because it's not enough to say "You are able to learn. Go forth and learn, and then apply that learning." That ain't even Guide On The Side. That's Guy In The Room.

Back to the metaphor thing, I mean look. Not only are they building a Rube Goldberg machine, but the process of building it is almost Rube Goldbergian. There are so many moving pieces! So much communication and compromise and co-planning needs to take place to be successful.

FIRST- The group must plan their section. They plan it alone, just the four of them, without worrying about any other group. It's too much to think about if they start being concerned with everyone else. The group of four must decide how creative and challenging their section will be, what simple machines and energy transfers will happen, what tools they'll use. They must design and blueprint. They must compromise with each other until everyone is satisfied.

SECOND- They must talk to the groups on either side of them. This immediately throws their plans out of whack because "What do you mean you want your marble to be triggered by a car? Ours doesn't have a car. Ours ends low, and yours starts high. Crap. Now what?" Revision. Natural, organic, collaborative revision. Lots of communication about these engineering concepts. And remember, every groups except the first and last has to go through this process twice.

THIRD- Bring your blueprint to me, whereupon I'll break it down with simple questions like "Why is this ramp floating in space, where are your supports?" and "How long are these parts?" They have to go away and revise again. Rethink again. This is by far the most difficult build of the year, that's why it's the last one. They've built tree kangaroo traps and arcade games and wind-powered cars and trebuchets. They know the process.

I'm not going to say 100% of my kids are 100% engaged with their groups 100% of the time, but I am going to say that even without my stepping in, I'd bet those numbers are up around 90%. These kids are excited and locked in. They're talking and designing and planning and revising without my having to sit on their shoulders and tap them in the foreheads with a spoon*.

And all of this is before they have cut a piece of cardboard or measured a section of string. If I can get them on board and invested in the design process, the build process is so much easier.

Not that the build process is easy. I approved a few plans that aren't going to work in practice but look good on paper, or work in student heads because they don't understand that a marble will not carry enough weight to crash into the toy car and get it to roll forward far enough to trigger those dominoes. That's fine. Build a simple version, run a proof-of-concept (yes, I use that term with them), and revise as needed.

Part of this is the panic that comes with trying to eat the elephant on a time limit. Embrace the panic, expect it. Last year I was positive the machine wouldn't actually work up until five minutes before it actually did. We got three good runs in and then someone accidentally bumped something and we never got it realigned properly. But we still succeeded, and you should have heard the room explode. Have faith. Not faith that you'll succeed, but faith that the real goal, the learning, will be accomplished.

This year I learned from last year. By front-loading the simple machine concepts, by forcing the planning in more detail, I hope to prevent the last minute stress. I'm pretty sure it still won't work until the last possible second, but one can hope.

Take a risk. Understand that teaching is the stringing together of many complex, disparate actions to create something simple on the surface. Use that to help you think around corners and solve problems in new ways. Come play.

*I've never literally done this, but we all figuratively have.


 Today we successfully finished our Rube Goldberg machine. It was four days of hard work, planning, revision, panic, frustration, and finally joy and relief. I did some documenting of it on the twitters so I'm going to link to those.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird TeacherTHE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and the just released A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher

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