Honors Engineering Reimagines Rube Goldberg Machines

Honors Engineering Reimagines Rube Goldberg Machines
  • Makers
Michael D’Argenio, Innovation Lab Co-Coordinator

Students collaborate during remote learning to tie together different chain-of-event models using simple machines.


Rube Goldberg machines — which feature a system triggered by a single action that sets off a chain of events leading from one stage to the next — are a staple of any engineering class. Their sole mission is to perform a simple task in the most indirect and complicated way possible. Rube Goldberg machines have the effect of igniting a sense of wonder. They inspire an appreciation for the fundamentals of mechanics and turn mundane tasks on their heads, causing us to reevaluate the way we do things. These machines can leave you wondering why we don't constantly decorate our realities and carry out every task in the most roundabout and whimsical way.

In a year that has caused us to reevaluate everything in our day-to-day lives, why not reevaluate what constitutes a Rube Goldberg machine? As everyone was learning from home, the first week of the semester provided a unique opportunity to create a fully virtual Rube Goldberg machine.

The goal of our Rube Goldberg machine was to think creatively within a tight set of parameters, communicate effectively among the class and set off a digital firework to commemorate the start of the class. Each student was instructed to build their individual stage of the machine using materials from around the house and incorporate at least two simple machines in their design. They also had to record a video of their stage in a way that allowed the videos to be strung together. After providing them with these requirements, I stepped away to let them drive the project to see how effectively they could communicate among a large group working remotely.

Over the course of a week, they brainstormed creative ideas, determined sequencing, identified what common materials would be used and decided how the transition from one video to the next would occur. Because every student was dependent on the classmate both before and after them in the sequence, breaking up into smaller groups in breakout rooms was not an option. Despite these complications, students found innovative ways to collaborate. They shared ideas in group discussions through Zoom, communicated plans individually in the chat and created collaborative Google Docs. After we compiled their videos at the end of the week, it was clear they were ready to tackle all of the challenges of this course with an engineering mindset!

Enjoy the compilation video here.