Rube Goldberg contest at Penn State aims to inspire future engineers

CDT photo

Teams representing seven Penn State organizations competed in the ninth annual Penn State Rube Goldberg Machine Contest on Saturday.

The contest, sponsored by the Penn State Engineering Alumni Society, challenged students to design and build a machine that can zip a zipper in 20 or more steps.

Teams and their machines are judged on criteria such as complexity, machine flow, creativity, humor and storytelling, and achievement of a given task.

The contest is designed to show young people that science can be fun by accomplishing simple tasks in outrageous ways.

“Kids love it,” said contest coordinator Jane Harris. “We get a lot of children in kindergarten through middle school.”

Of the 300 people who filled up the Nittany Lion Inn ballroom, many were young children.

Each team creates a unique theme or story for its machine project.

Maria Alejandra Piedrahita, a member of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, said the groups’s concept was easy to come up with.

SHPE’s team created a World Cup-themed machine that “travels through countries around the world and ends up in the World Cup stadium in Brazil, where it zips the zipper,” Piedrahita said.

Piedrahita, a fifth-year engineering science student, said it took her team about a month to conceptualize and build the machine.

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers University Park chapter took only four days to build its jungle-themed project.

“We did a brainstorming session and just started coming up with step ideas,” said Ray McDivitt, senior mechanical engineering student.

The team thought up components that they wanted to incorporate — such as a waterfall and swinging apes — and then proceeded to figure out ways to connect the steps, according to McDivitt. Their final project includes 29 individual steps.

Although ASME University Park took second place this year, it had won the contest for the past five years. And the team is only looking to get better.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity to go outside the box,” said McDivitt. “This is your time to do whatever you think is a good idea.”

“It’s also really important for our club that we get people involved that might otherwise not be involved,” said Anne Pauley, a mechanical engineering sophomore and member of ASME’s team.

ASME is especially encouraged by the number of children who attend the competition every year.

“Seeing the amount of little kids and the joy on their face as they watch these (machines) go off and getting them interested in it, that’s probably the most rewarding part of it,” said McDivitt.

ASME was usurped this year by the Engineering Leadership Society, which designed a machine based on “A Day in the Life of Child,” catering to the contest’s spirit of inspiring young scientists.

ELS’ first-place-winning machine featured toy cars, a baseball, SpongeBob and even Cookie Monster. The group also asked for children in the audience to help run the machine.

Third place went to ASME Harrisburg, whose machine featured modes of transportation such as a toy train and a rocket ship that ultimately zipped the zipper as it went toward the moon.

The winning team will represent Penn State at the national contest April 12 in Columbus, Ohio.

More information about the event is available at www.