Engineering students tackle Rube Goldberg

MARIETTA – Dominoes – a lovable tabletop game to some – was the bane of existence for the students in Washington State Community College’s Fundamentals of Mechanical Engineering class Monday night.

The frustration occurred as five teams consisting of 23 students gathered at the school’s Center for Business and Technology to test the complicated contraptions they made for the campus’s annual Rube Goldberg Competition.

Rube Goldberg was an engineer turned cartoonist who made famous the art of making incredibly elaborate machines to do a simple task, said Sue Mentink, associate professor of Mechanical Engineering.

“It’s not easy and lots of things can go wrong. All kinds of things happen,” said Mentink, who has been overseeing the contest for six years.

This year’s national challenge was to zip a zipper in a minimum of steps. The steps included catapults, yo-yos, balloons, robots, and even a flying squirrel. But one common denominator among the five teams were those dastardly dominoes.

“Is that the dominoes again?” asked student LeeAnn Kirkbride as the group’s dominoes scattered while they were waiting for their turn.

The goal, explained fellow team member Taylor Harmon, was for the dominoes to hit a PVC pipe that then pulled another PVC pipe off a ledge above.

“That pipe hits the balloon and pops it and then the cup full of marbles drops and pulls the pulley system that zips the zipper,” said Harmon, 18, a Geotechnical Drafting major at the college.

The group’s closet-themed Rube Goldberg machine started out twice the size, but was cut down when the group realized that did not need very much space to enact their machine, she added.

A marble had been giving Mechanical Engineering major Shelby Duncan and her teammates headaches when it came to their construction-themed machine.

After rolling down a set of ledges attached to a wall, the marble was supposed to go into a funnel and roll out, neatly hitting some dominoes, she explained.

“The marble bounces off here and goes the wrong way. It goes everywhere sometimes,” she said.

When working properly, the marble will hit the dominoes spot on causing them to knock loose a stick that was holding back a ball wound tightly around a pole. Like a tether ball-or a rouge wrecking ball considering the theme- the ball would unwind itself in a spiral, knocking a piece of marble off a catapult. A yo-yo would be sent swinging into more dominoes, which eventually pulled a tiny toy car free of its restraint, knocking a heavy screw off a ledge and pulling the zipper down with it.

A Christmas-themed machine that ended up winning the contest made ample use of electrical circuits.

“The cookie gets lifted off this plate…that activates a switch which starts the electric train,” said group member Andrew Kasick.

The train has to hit the ever-troublesome dominoes as it makes its way around, which sets off a mouse trap, which activates an electric robot. After an ornament rolls down an incline, another electric switch is activated, making a K’NEX man turn a circular lever.

“It uses a lot of what we’ve been learning in class,” said Kasick of all the electrical parts.

Eventually another mouse trap sends Rudolph flying through the air while simultaneously dropping a bag of goodies and zipping Santa’s sack of toys.

The machine was a lot of trial and error, said Kasick.

“We had to re-engineer it three times to get all the steps to all work and it takes a while to rework,” he said.

The group has been brainstorming ideas about the project since September and has been constructing the machine since early to mid-October, he added.