Teaching With ‘Simple Machines’; Academy Students Learn ‘To Think For Themselves’

Teaching

BERLIN — Students in Worcester County learned this summer that the quickest solution isn’t always the best by building complex Rube Goldberg machines as part of their summer STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) Academy.

Starting with a basic device that sends a marble down several twists and turns, students must then add their own custom built machines to create an intricate catapult capable of launching a marshmallow. Berlin Intermediate School (BIS) fifth grade teacher Sheri Ward explained that the activity promotes STEM-oriented goals like teamwork, self-reliance, time management and creatively tackling a problem.

“They have to figure it out for themselves. I can’t tell them how to make it,” said Ward. “That’s what STEM is. It’s teaching them to think for themselves and to think outside of the box.”

The “simple machines” that students had to incorporate into their designs include levers, incline planes and pulleys.

“We have already instructed them on how to make the different types [of machines]. Here they are working on catapults because ultimately they have to launch a marshmallow at the end,” said Ward. “So they have to have a pulley system in there. They have to have an incline plane.”

Rising sixth grader Abby Adamson said that her group will be taking advantage of a combination of devices to create a catapult capable of moving an object.

“Our idea is to have a bunch of stuff with incline planes and to use a roll of duct tape and pulleys so we can launch the marshmallow,” she said.

Adamson was on a team with fellow rising sixth graders Haley Brow and Josselyne Maza. Learning through the hands on building of a Rube Goldberg machine was much better than hearing a lecture about it in class, according to Brow. Even if their design fails the launch the first time, Maza said that the trio has enjoyed the project so much that they will stay with it until it works.

“If it doesn’t work, I’m just going to say, ‘let’s keep trying,’ because we’ve gotten this far,” she said.

This is a common sentiment shared by most of the students in the STEM Academy, according to Ward.

“I like the way that they’re working together. They’re brainstorming different ideas, different materials,” she said. “They’re finding what will work considering mass and measurement and gravity.”

It all ties into STEM and the incoming Common Core Curriculum, said Marlyn Barrett, coordinator of instruction for science.

“It’s about being on the side and guiding the students,” she said.

A traditional lecture-based academic lesson might only have students retaining about 5 percent of the information they are presented with in the long-run, Barrett said. But creative projects like the Rube Goldberg launchers can have upwards of 75-percent information retention for years, she asserted.

And it is not just students at BIS that are reaping the benefits of building Rube Goldberg machines. Students in elementary through high school in Worcester County will all participate in a similar project if they are signed up for their school’s STEM Academy. The goals remain similar across the board, said Barrett, though at the high school level students didn’t receive as much direction and were encouraged to go further off the gird than other grades.

“The high schoolers were given less instruction but they have to have more components to their Rube Goldberg machine,” said Barrett.

Next Wednesday each participating school will have its own competition where students will put their custom designs to use.

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