For several months, high school students across Philadelphia have been trying to figure out the most complicated way to erase a chalkboard.
On Saturday, they will show their work at the Philadelphia Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, the first of what organizers hope will be an annual academic contest.
Earlier this week, a team at Northeast High School in Philadelphia worked on their machine after school. The teenage engineers dropped a green golf ball into a length of duct tubing, such that it will land in a Styrofoam cup below, which should pull a string that triggers a precariously balanced wooden armature to release a second ball into a track, which triggers another sequence and another until, ultimately, it erases a chalkboard.
It didn't work.
"I think the ball just disappeared," said a despondent team member. The golf ball immediately stuck in the flexible ribs of the duct tubing, which was not angled steeply enough.
So, they tried it again.
"Damn it!" a cry went up, as the ball bounced away from its target. "So close!"
Try. Fail. Try again.
The first lesson of engineering frustrates the creation of the Rube Goldberg Machine, named after the fanciful cartoonist who drew wildly complicated machines that end up performing very simple tasks. The machines are the antithesis of good engineering.
"It's completely frustrating. Everything simple you want to do becomes complicated," said Joseph Connelly, a math teacher at Northeast who oversees its Rube Goldberg team. "But if this comes off, it will be awfully rewarding. Everybody will have had a blast and will have learned something."
The winning high school team on Saturday, at Friends' Central School in Wynnewood, will walk away with $1,000 and the opportunity to compete at a higher regional level. Middle school teams will compete in their own division for prize money and bragging rights. The competition is open to the public.
The judges include the artistic duo The Dufala Brothers, Stephen and Billy, known for their sculptures; Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron; former (and future?) mayoral candidate Sam Katz; and NBC 10 meteorologist Glenn "Hurricane" Schwartz.
The machines will be judged on a point system based on criteria including the number of steps, the size of the machine, the rate of success (it should complete its goal of erasing a chalkboard, twice), and – most importantly – how well it adheres to the spirit of Rube Goldberg, i.e. the degree to which it is clever.
"A machine could not complete the task and still win," said Victor Fiorillo, the organizer of the local contest and staff writer for Philadelphia magazine. "Let me put it this way: if your machine is whimsical, and funny, and tells a story, you would get more points for those two categories than for completing the task on both runs."
At Father Judge, a Catholic high school in the Northeast, the award-winning robotics team is working up a Rube Goldberg device that tells the story of the approach of summer vacation, said junior Bill Reil.
"The idea is this -- the mind of a student on the last day of school," he said. The device starts with the hands of a clock, which trigger a black sneaker to kick (the uniform at Father Judge requires dark sneakers), which sets marbles in motion that launch a toy Mickey Mouse roller coaster, which prompts subsequent steps involving a sailboat, a bicycle, and a see-sawing door of a gym locker.
"He's going back between work and play, work and play in his head. He's waiting to get out for summer," said Reil.
The robotics club adviser Mike Fiocco, a Father Judge physics teacher, once studied engineering at Drexel University. A project like this prepares his students for engineering far more than anything he did as a kid, he said.
"I had absolutely no idea what an engineer did," said Fiocco. "When you get to college, with all the basic courses – you could be in school two years and still not know what you're getting into. The appeal for me is that this gives students the opportunity to see what it's like to work as an engineer. Is this what I want to do?"
It's also kind of fun.