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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

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Goldberg contraptions introduce students to physics, engineering

The Rube Goldberg competition at Minnesota State Mankato is a serious endeavor for members of 24 high school teams.

By Robb Murray, Free Press Staff Writer [published in The Free Press, Mankato, MN, 2/12/2010]

When they came to the Minnesota State Mankato campus Friday, their anxiety level was low.

Their participation in the Rube Goldberg contest was a stress-free affair, part of a class project, the kind of thing that made their science class fun and educational in a low-key kind of way.

Then came their first brush with the competition: College professor-like judges in clean white coats and clip boards approached — along with about 40 or 50 bystanders and onlookers and passersby, all curious whether the all-girl team from Kenyon-Wanamingo High School and their contraption would successfully complete this year’s Goldberg mission of watering a plant.

So they kicked off their Rube with a strategically placed marble. Down a metal track, through a clear spiral tube, across a mouse trap, into a tiny bucket — woops! — the marble missed the bucket and skittered across the floor a off a young man’s sneaker.

The team of judges leaves, the onlookers leave, and the girls get going on setting up their Rube for another run.

Each year at this time Minnesota State Mankato hosts the high school version of the Rube Goldberg competition. What’s new this year is that the winners are eligible to go on to the national competition at Ferris State University in Michigan.

Twenty-four teams competed in a competition that encourages teams to come up with the most complicated way possible of completing a simple task.

To pull it off, teams came up with some goofy ideas.

One team used a fire truck theme, complete with a fire hydrant, ax and painted Dalmatian on the side. One team had a jungle theme. Another went with a conservation theme. Some were big on lumber. Some used Legos. Mouse traps were common, as were pieces from the board game, “Mouse Trap,” itself an exercise in the Rube Goldberg approach. Funnels, Ping-Pong balls and dominoes populated several Rubes.

Aaron Budge, a civil engineering professor, served as one of the judges. He said he’s judged several Rube Goldberg competitions, and says the quality of the kids’ inventiveness and creativity has maintained a high level.

One team gave the kids something to aspire to ... and maybe to show off a little. St. Olaf’s Rube was quite a bit more complicated. It had 170 actions, and it pulled into play some of the more complicated aspects of physics, such as angular momentum, and the use of little barrels that rolled uphill.

The St. Olaf machine uses Mentos dropping into Diet Coke, Ping Pong balls flying through the air, some kind of gas filling up a rubber glove and Lego hammers punching balls down toy race car tracks.

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