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June Engineering Activity: Rube Goldberg Machine

A Rube Goldberg Machine is a crazy contraption that accomplishes a simple task in the most complicated way possible. In this activity, you get to be a systems engineer and design a Rube Goldberg Machine that will crush an aluminum can!
June Engineering Activity: Rube Goldberg Machine -

Systems engineers oversee all aspects of a project or system in a variety of fields, such as software, transportation, product development and manufacturing. Their job is to develop a system that creates a product or project from the beginning to the end. In this activity, you’ll use everyday items to design a Rube Goldberg Machine to accomplish a simple task – crushing an aluminum can!

What You Will Need

You can use whatever materials you have handy to build your Rube Goldberg Machine. Choosing your supplies is important because they encompass the complexity or simplicity of the machine and how it goes about completing the identified task. Keep in mind that you may change your mind and add or leave out materials during the building process. Some ideas to get you started include:

Things that Roll

  • Marbles
  • Balls: Tennis, Baseball, Bowling, etc.
  • Toy Cars
  • Dominoes
  • Skateboard
  • Roller Skate
  • Mousetrap
  • Legos

Things that Move

  • Mousetrap
  • Dominoes
  • Toaster
  • Fan
  • Ramps
  • Toy Train Tracks
  • Marble Runs
  • Books
  • Trays
  • PVC pipe
  • Plastic tubing
  • Recyclables
  • Cardboard
  • Cereal Boxes
  • Cardboard Rolls
  • Plastic Water Bottles
  • Cans
  • Aluminum Foil
  • Household Materials
  • Chopsticks
  • Popsicle Sticks
  • Ruler
  • Wooden Blocks
  • Bowl
  • String
  • Tape
  • Sand
  • Pins
  • Hammer
  • Balloons
  • Water
  • Baking soda and vinegar
  • Building Your Rube Goldberg Machine (RGM)

Step 1: Gather your supplies and sketch out your design. This will help you choose the right materials, identify gaps, and assemble a mechanism that will work. Use scratch paper to brainstorm a plan for your RGM.

Not sure where to start? How about some of these ideas:

  • Use circuits to conduct electricity to small motors.
  • Create a popsicle stick ramp that knocks a series of dominos over that then creates a chain reaction.
  • Send a soup can rolling and create weighted movement in a pully system

Keep in mind the ultimate goal – to crush an aluminum can – and consider working backward from that action. Start with no less than three different “actions” in your RGM to complete the task.

Step 2: Build it! Test each part as you build it, before adding on the next step. Once the whole thing is complete, test it to see if it accomplishes your task. If something doesn’t work, what can you do to make it work next time? Try one small change each time you test it until your amazing machine works!

Step 3: Try adding additional actions, increasing from three to five. Or try even more! Pick a different task (like watering a plant or turning on a light switch) and try it again! There are endless possibilities of what you can do with a Rube Goldberg Machine!

And to see other students’ creations, be sure to check out the SWENext Overly Complicated Contraption Challenge YouTube playlist, where SWENexters competed to create the most epic Rube Goldberg Machine that can accomplish an everyday task!


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    Heather Sheridan

    Heather Sheridan P.E., PMP is a Civil Engineer and Project Manager at Black & Veatch in the Hydropower Department. Heather has a BS in Civil Engineering from the University of California, Davis with a focus on hydraulic structures and environmental design.