Machine makers: ICC physics students construct Rube Goldberg contraptions

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

FULTON – The most difficult tasks are often the most rewarding.
More than 50 physics students in Betsy Chesnutt’s three physics classes at Itawamba Community College learned the joys of complexity over the past several weeks while creating Rube Goldberg machines.
For their final lab project for the course, the students designed and built working machines that used at least 20 steps to water a plant.
“The goal is to make it as complicated as possible to do something really simple,” said Chesnutt, who teaches two sections of general physics and one of physics for engineers.
The machines are named for the Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist famous for drawing such contraptions that would make a simple task extraordinarily complex. And so Chesnutt’s students found ways to make watering a plant involve much more than lifting a bucket.
One team used a Hot Wheels car parking garage, aerosol can and dart gun, among other props.
Another used a physics book, a glider and a popsicle stick, while a third utilized a baby seat. In all, eight groups of about six students each made their own machines.
“Everyone in the group had a step in mind that they wanted to do, and we had to make them all work together,” said Sam Andrews, 20, a sophomore biomedical engineering major from Columbus. “We had to learn a lot with trial and error. A lot of times in the real world, you have to try and figure it out.”
While real-world application is important for any academic subject, it is particularly relevant for physics. By adding several steps to their projects, the students needed to discover many different ways to make a process work.
They also needed to learn to solve multiple problems.
“Sometimes things don’t work out exactly as you have on paper,” Chesnutt said. “You have to do a lot of problem-solving, and this helps with those skills.”
The teams had two weeks, including the week of Thanksgiving break, to complete their project. Several of them said their machines took about 10 to 12 hours to build.
Jackson Browning, 19, said his team’s project that featured the Hot Wheels contraption and dart gun began with a meeting at his house the day before Thanksgiving.
“Everyone brought separate things that they had that they thought would work,” said Browning, a sophomore biology/premed student from New Albany.
“We started with the Hot Wheels garage, and from there, we built a track and found a mouse trap and then set dominos up. It was just a lot of trial and error.”
Browning’s team, which included Justyn Nolan, Jimmy Windham, Haley Pickett, Erin Conner and Mackenzi Smith, won first for the general physics class. A team featuring Andrews, Anna Chase and Amanda Coward placed first in the physics for engineering class. Chesnutt said she would like to see a team from the college enter their project in the regional Rube Goldberg Machine Contest in the spring.
Coward, 19, said her group began with the last step and then worked backwards.
“I kept looking around my house to find stuff to throw on it,” said Coward, a sophomore pre-med student from New Albany. “I liked the creative process of it.
A lot of times you don’t get to use imagination like when you were a kid. It took a lot of time, but I was really pleased with the final product.”

Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@djournal.com.