Sometimes you can’t just take the easy way out—but the team of Maine South High School students who won this year’s Argonne National Laboratory Rube Goldberg machine contest found the more complicated route can also be more fun.
The group of freshmen created a machine that through 20 intricate steps accomplished a simple task: popping a balloon.
Argonne National Laboratory hosted the team Monday, along with the winners of the Department of Energy’s National Science Bowl, during a showcase in the lab’s cafeteria.
Maine South’s team tried 15 different ways to pop the balloon before they settled on inflating it using negative energy (i.e., sucking the air out of a chamber with a vacuum cleaner) until it popped against two screws fastened to the side of the container.
The whole project involved a lot of trial and error as the students integrated the principles of gravity, electricity and air pressure into their design.
“Some steps would keep failing,” said team member Grace Mauery. “But when you’d see those steps work, it would make me so happy. The whole team would have a sigh of relief.”
The ability to learn from failure is one of the most important traits of a scientist, said Argonne researcher Doug Sisterson, who joined the team for lunch.
“Science is about being wrong most of the time,” he said. “But that’s what drives you toward success.”
The model racecar team from Daniel Wright Junior High School, who also visited Argonne Monday, achieved a trio of science and engineering successes this spring.
They created the fastest lithium ion battery-powered car out of 44 middle schools at the National Science Bowl in Washington, DC, in April. They also placed first in the academic portion of the bowl and won the top award for car design.
“We had the fastest time at regionals,” said eighth-grader Andrew Jin. “At the end of the first trial we still had the fastest time. Then we started to think, ‘Well, maybe we’ve got something here.'”
At regionals, the race didn’t involve carrying a water bottle. The team then worked with mentors from Argonne and Case New Holland to fine-tune the car for the challenge of carrying the bottle at nationals.
The wood contraption carried a 20 oz. bottle of water 20 meters in fewer than six seconds—the only car to break that mark.
Even with a last-minute glitch—one of the car’s wheels fell off—the team’s creation still came out on top.
“It was really satisfying that all our hard work paid off,” Jin said.
Watch the video above to see the Rube Goldberg machine and the battery-powered racecar in action.