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Cartoon-inspired projects not always a laughing matter

Rube Goldberg machines

Eighth-grader Steven Drenth explains the features of Team Tourist Trap's Rube Goldberg project to younger students at St. Paul Catholic School's annual event on March 12 featuring the works described as "comically involved, complicated invention(s), laboriously contrived to perform a simple operation." Eleven machines were displayed as part of the Valparaiso school's science curriculum. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)

 

By Anthony D. Alonzo

Northwest Indiana Catholic

 

        St. Paul Catholic School eighth-graders have the knack for making things complicated. That was a good thing, at least judging from their recent exposition of intentionally overwrought, often comical science projects.

        “It is a fun tradition,” said six-year St. Paul junior high science teacher Sarah Rock. “It’s one of the more memorable events for the (eighth-graders); this is something that every year they see the older students doing and when they’re finally here they get to participate themselves.”

        Eleven contraptions decorated with themes from international travel to all-things-cats were set up in the parish hall. Strings, duct tape, sand, Hot Wheels cars and nearly any household object that could be joined to other parts to create a working machine were on display on March 12 at the Valparaiso school.

        The competition evoked the work of Rube Goldberg, a professional animator, who, by the mid-20th century, inspired scores of feature cartoons, newspaper illustrations, and advertising campaigns, all playing on the irony of a complex contraption achieving a single, simple end result.

        “It takes about 15 hours to come up with all of the ideas and to build, and it takes about 20 or 30 seconds to run through the entire machine,” eighth-grader Sarah Page said. “I think it was all worth it.”

        Page saw her World Cup soccer-themed machine work after hitting a few glitches and enduring some “nerve-wracking” moments. In the project, a marble travels over numerous horizontal pathways giving the process some duration. Several transitory steps eventually yield to a ping pong ball rolling into a toy soccer goal. Her partners in the endeavor were Jack Keimig and Madeline Clements.

        Rock did set forth parameters, which were modified from collegiate Rube Goldberg competitions: students’ machines must contain at least 15 steps to move a miniature soccer or basketball to a goal, and must include an incline plane, pulley, lever, wheel & axel and domino effect. Prohibited was the use of live animals, fire, sharp objects and other potentially dangerous materials.

        “They were allowed to use mouse traps but not rat traps - those are a little too large and somebody could lose a finger.”

        The spirit of the competition, however, was not rules; it was the fostering of the youths’ creativity. And by the day of the competition, the students had shown Rock they could be trusted enough to go on nearly unsupervised.

        “I’m just so proud of them,” said Rock of the team members working together. “They’re really showing off their work to the little kids and taking ownership of this.”

        Thirty-four students set aside after-school hours, meeting at their classmates’ homes to work together on the projects for a six-week period from conceptualization to completion.

        Musical affinity was on display by the team manning the Sound of Rube Goldberg machine. Nolan Gerig said his domino-heavy contraption evoked the members’ favorite bands with album art from Ben Folds Five, Oasis and Foster the People.

        Final judging will be completed after compiling faculty evaluation forms. Factors such as submitted documentation, team spirit and creative themes are considered. That way, simple mechanical failure at any one time would not put anyone out of contention.

        Precise descriptions of the intricate student projects could become lengthy. But an enthusiastic spokesman for Team Carnival Chaos, Matthew Smaga, offered a concise overview of their festive-looking machine: “Ours goes fast. We don’t have a lot of dominoes and a lot of things are just one-time movements.”

        During the fair, some St. Paul students were already reflecting on their experience, lending credence to the idea that the creative endeavor would promote thought.

        “To be honest, I have been looking forward to this since I was in kindergarten,” said Steven Drenth. “Now that we’re actually doing it, it’s like mixed emotions between frustration, excitement and just fun.”

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