Completing 1 step at a time

Published 10:00 pm Friday, March 2, 2018

Northwood-Kensett students compete in contest

ST. ANSGAR, Iowa — It’s not, perhaps, a household name, but it was a household activity students had their hands in as they prepared to compete Friday morning in the Rube Goldberg state competition.

This year’s goal?

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Pour a bowl of cereal. A Northwood-Kensett Community School District team, “Breakfast at Nathan’s,” came in third.

Rube Goldberg machines are deliberately complex. The machine takes a simple task — pouring a bowl of cereal, for instance — and breaks that task down into multiple steps, each one triggering the next.

“The biggest challenge is getting it to work consistently,” said Northwood-Kensett student Sarah Pederson. Pederson was a part of “Breakfast at Nathan’s,” one of two groups from the district that attended.

Student Kenzi Duvall said the toughest step was last: a pair of Tinker Toy wheels on half-axles. Upon receiving a bump from another machine part, the first wheel — layered partially in duct tape with yellow minions on it — rotates around its axle, which bumps into the second wheel. It does the same. The second wheel bumps a pair of duct-taped Jenga blocks off the table. The gravity from their fall pulls a string attached to the end of two small, horizontal cereal boxes and the boxes upend into a waiting bowl below.

According to Pederson, Iowa’s Rube Goldberg contest required students’ machines to complete at least 20 steps. Their machine has 25.

The team of nine, all dressed in pajama bottoms, set up a machine themed around an imaginary sleepover at group member Nathan Hannemann’s house. All of the students attending from Northwood-Kensett are involved in either the math club, a physics class or both.

“They’re learning about the application portion of physics,” adviser Cindy Trettin said.

Her students have been working through the engineer design cycle.

“You design it, and if it doesn’t work, you design the problem out,” Trettin said.

Northwood-Kensett math club adviser Lori Willert said this is the second year the math club and physics classes have teamed up for competition.

“They turn out a better machine because of it,” Willert said.

Northwood-Kensett’s other team (all wearing black T-shirts with a Batman logo and the words, “Why so cereal?”) spent around three weeks putting their machine together, working every day during class.

“It’s kind of like a theme park, roller-coaster physics,” team member Raquel Robinson said. Her team’s machine had 23 steps.

According to St. Ansgar science teacher and contest coordinator Devin Schwiesow, the judging for the contest is both subjective and objective. A group of a dozen judges, all with engineering or science in their background, were looking for the least amount of human touches to the machines, as well as teamwork and the team’s ability to meet the timeline: The machine had to operate twice within minutes. Three members of the team were allowed within a taped perimeter during that time to set back up before the machine had to run again.

The judges were also looking for creativity, Schwiesow said. Enter the plastic mice scattered around “Breakfast at Nathan’s,” hitching a ride on a car rooftop or occupying one seat in a duct-taped see-saw. The group also incorporated cereal into their design, including a row of mini cereal boxes set up to act like dominos.

“We kind of wanted to incorporate cereal more than just pouring,” Pederson said.

Nonetheless, at the end of the setup and the finishing touches, student Morgan Johnson said, the team was hoping and praying their machine made it happen.

“The most fun is when it actually works,” Pederson said.

About Sarah Kocher

Sarah covers education and arts and culture for the Tribune.

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