Bailey Plew, a fifth grade student at Carolyn Wenz Elementary School, carefully aligns dominoes on the Rube her class built as part the Engineers in the Classroom event March 3 in the Paris High School gym. (Gary Henry/The Prairie Press)

Rube are put to work

Local fifth graders learn engineering basics

The most direct way from point A to point B is a straight line except when the creative mind of Pulitzer prize winning cartoonist Rube Goldberg was at work.

Goldberg’s drawings took a simple task like turning on a light through multiple levels of complexity with a series of simple machines. Each machine completed one task to activate the next machine in the series until the final goal was achieved.

Paris area fifth graders got an introduction to engineering, simple machines and Rube Goldberg when the Illinois Department of Transportation partnered with Engineers in the Classroom, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting early learning about engineering.

“We found fifth grade kids are still excited about hands on,” said Rexlyn Nicole of Engineers in the Classroom. She added Goldberg-style creations appeal to the younger students rather than taking a more traditional science fair approach to the topic. “A Rube Goldberg is fun. There is a lot of stress in the science fair.”

Erin Weaver, Bureau Chief of Administrative Service for IDOT District 5, said this was the first year for IDOT’s involvement and District 5 along with Crestwood and Carolyn Wenz Elementary School were viewed as a start.

“This is a pilot program and IDOT hopes to implement it in other districts,” said Weaver.

Clarissa Williams, IDOT section chief for recruitment, agreed it was a good fit to have IDOT involved. She explained IDOT recruits at colleges and universities, but the Rube Goldberg event is a way of reaching student much earlier about what engineering is and what engineers do.

“We think it is important to plant the seed early,” said Williams.

IDOT’s participation made engineers and engineering technicians available to partner with students in each of the fifth grade classrooms. Francis and Associates and an engineer from Simonton Windows and Doors also signed on for the project.

The task assigned the students was to orbit something around another object three times by using simple machines. They were not allowed to use running water or electricity to power the creations and all work was confined to a 36-inch by 36-inch by 36-inch space.

Engineering technician Phil Limes and engineer Jeannie Bland worked with Monica Smith’s fifth grade at Wenz School. The class’ Rube, as the creations are called, was the only one with each of the simple machines labeled denoting if it was a lever, an incline plane or a pulley for example.

Limes said the labeling was a way to help the students explain to the judges how each step of the process worked.

He volunteered for the project knowing it was something the students would enjoy. His 11-year-old son built a large Rube Goldberg contraption that starts in the upstairs of their home and concludes in the basement.

Both Lime and Bland said the ideas for the Rube came from the students and their role was helping the youngster focus the work. Dividing the students into work groups often resulted in an abundance of the same simple machines, but not always the right kind.

“I think we provided inspiration and tried to spark their creativity,” said Bland. “I kept saying make it simple.”

The finished Rubes were brought to the Paris High School gymnasium March 3 for a competition to see which ones, in the judges’ opinions, not only met the goal but also exhibited a gain in knowledge by the team members and creativity.

“We were looking for a use of a variety of things that shows the creativity of turning that stuff into simple machines,” said judge Monte Cherry, a retired engineer.

Teacher Morgan Wood’s fifth grade class at Crestwood won first place with a school-themed design that rang a bell three times.

Wood acknowledged some trepidation at first to having the engineers in the classroom.

“I was concerned about how much they (her students) would get interested,” she said.

That was a non-issue after the students and engineers Bart Sherer and Ronald Wagoner worked out a rapport. Wood said the two men started visiting the classroom before Christmas break and usually came twice a week for an hour or more each time to work with the students. The experience has convinced her of the value of bringing outside experts into the classroom to work with the students.

“It was awesome for them and to get actual experience rather than just learning about what engineers do,” said Wood.

Student Bryan Smith said it was fun working with the engineers, and Hannah Waltz agreed. She said the engineers were helpful and friendly.

The team from Wood’s class has 12 members and many said they didn’t know what engineers did before the project. Now, nine of them are thinking about the possibility of an engineering career.

The project wasn’t all fun, though.

“It was a lot of work to do,” said student Gaige Burks. “It didn’t work the first time we tried, and we had to fix all of the stuff that didn’t work.”

The Prairie Press

101 Central Avenue Paris, IL 61944