July 15, 2010

Chain reaction is essence of summer engineering program

Posted: July 15, 2010
High School students in ASU’s Collegiate Scholars Summer Enrichment Program build a portion of a larger machine as part of an engineering design class.
High School students in ASU’s Collegiate Scholars Summer Enrichment Program build a portion of a larger machine as part of an engineering design class. The students are developing a solution that will tell the story of transporting water from the Great Lakes to Arizona using Rube Goldberg machines, which are complex machines that rely on chain reaction to complete simple tasks.

Arizona State University and Purdue University are working on a collaborative project for a week this summer that brings high school students, ages 14-17, in Indiana and Arizona together to develop a solution that will tell the story of transporting water from the Great Lakes to Arizona using Rube Goldberg machines.

Rube Goldberg machines, named after American cartoonist and inventor Rube Goldberg, are complex machines that rely on a chain reaction to do simple tasks. 

The idea to do a joint project came from Odesma Dalrymple, assistant professor of engineering in the College of Technology and Innovation at the Polytechnic campus, and Shawn Jordan, a former colleague of Dalrymple at Purdue.

“Shawn started his summer engineering program about three years ago,” Dalrymple said, “so when I started at ASU and the opportunity to do a summer program came up through the Collegiate Scholars Summer Enrichment Program, we decided to explore the possibility of teaching students about engineering and the engineering design process through the development of a geographically distributed Rube machine.”

So with 19 students from high schools across the Valley, Dalrymple created five design teams, each with a specific function, from setting the machines in motion to watering the cactus.

How it works is one team’s machine will receive the connection, or in this case a telephone call from the Purdue team, that will literally vibrate a phone in Arizona to get the car or ball rolling, which is the trigger to set  all the machines in Arizona in motion. Three of the teams are charged solely with designing machines that simulate water being transported from one point to the next. The last team is where the water reaches its destination and waters the cactus.

“Students approach the creation of Rube Goldberg machines in an engineering way. Following a design process, the students have to first plan, work through the steps, create the designs, identify the materials needed, build, and repeat the process to make improvements,” Dalrymple said. “Each team creates a section of the machine that fits into the larger machine so interpersonal communication skills were crucial, not only among team members but between teams in Arizona and Indiana.”

Some machines incorporate microprocessors connected to light sensors, as well as more simple products like wood, balloons, plastic tubes and cups, string and paper. As the smell of cut wood and saw dust waft through the air, students are working to meet the deadline and are enjoying themselves in the process.  

“The experience has been gratifying because there are no guidelines, no homework, we are free to build what we want as long as it works, and we have access to all sorts of materials and tools,” said Hunter Peek, a freshman at Basha High School in Chandler.

The students in Dalrymple’s class are putting together a Rube Goldberg machine that makes music too, and will demonstrate it along with the traveling water themed machine when the week-long program culminates July 16.

Media contact:
Chris Lambrakis
(480) 727-1173
(602)316-5616
lambrakis@asu.edu