Rube Goldberg device a winning contraption

Pete Sherman

A few weeks after Brian Biggs’ fifth-grade class at Trinity Lutheran School won a first-place award for its Rube Goldberg device, the contraption still is on display in the classroom, working flawlessly.

“The hardest part is getting the pendulum to strike the mousetrap,” said Adam Reed, a Trinity fifth-grader whose job was managing the checklist confirming all pieces of the deliberately complicated thingamajig were set up correctly.

For the past three years, Trinity fifth-graders have taken part in a Rube Goldberg contest that’s part of a program that connects fifth-graders with professional engineers. The engineers and students work on building a Goldberg device that competes in regional and state contests.

This year, the Trinity team advanced from the regional, held at Lincoln Land Community College, to the state competition at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, where they came home with the first place trophy earlier this month.

“At the state contest, it took about four times to get it to work,” said Biggs, who said he felt the urge to intervene and help.

“But the judge just looked over at me,” he said.

Rules are both specific and vague. A Rube Goldberg device must measure no longer, wider or higher than three feet. It must launch an item. The launched item must come to a stop and at that stop must perform an action, such as ring a bell or flip a sign. No electricity can be used.

The problem, Biggs said, is that “launched” isn’t defined. Also, points can be taken off — but judges never reveal whether they are or how much. Other than that, the more complicated, the better.

“At state, you get first place or nothing,” Biggs said.

Trinity’s Rube Goldberg device was based on a nursery rhyme theme. There’s a cow that jumps over a moon. Humpty Dumpty (actually a golf ball) falls from a wall. A goose lays a golden egg. There’s Jack with his candlestick and a mouse that runs up the clock. Once set in motion, the device takes just a few moments to complete, signaled by a billiard ball that flips over a sign that says, “The End.”

“We were going to have some (playing) cards, for all the king’s men to knock over Humpty Dumpty, but couldn’t get it to work,” Adam said.

Each of Biggs’ 16 students had an assigned role. Biggs also had them run some physics equations calculating such things as force. The students worked on the design and construction during and outside class time. Their engineers also provided guidance, including Kevin Riechers from the Illinois Department of Transportation and Michelle Cox of Lutheran High School.

Pete Sherman can be reached at (217) 788-1539