DECATUR — To make the perfect pancake, sometimes you just have to wait for the right moment to flip.
Well, what if you had to flip a pancake without ever touching it?
That’s the question students and engineers from across Macon County answered at the 23rd Engineering in the Classroom Rube Goldberg Showcase at Eisenhower High School Saturday.
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The event had students use mechanical techniques inspired by Rube Goldberg, an American cartoonist associated with machines that are intentionally designed to perform a simple task in an indirect, overcomplicated way.
Central A&M fifth-grader Eli Wilson participated with his class on Saturday. He said they did come across some problems with the pancake flipping off to the side and their mousetrap breaking, but it was still fun.
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“We thought it was going to be really hard for us, but then once we go halfway through, it started to come together,” Wilson said.
The building process and showcase is designed to encourage students to learn more about engineering and the career pathways associated with the field.
Engineers working at various Central Illinois businesses volunteer their time in local fifth-grade classes, meeting with students once a week over the course of eight weeks to create their contraption.
“The concept is to bring other types of people from different backgrounds into the classroom and give them a different kind of hands-on learning experience,” said Michelle Schwenk, executive director for Engineering in the Classroom.
The Central A&M team created 10 moves using ropes and pulleys, reels and rods, weights and a gear from a bicycle to flip a pancake. Once the weights were pushed off, it sent the mechanisms in motion.
Central A&M teammate Larissa Wells was part of the group that connected the chain to the gear, allowing it to power the multiple steps.
“We had to check before and after, and if it something didn’t work, we had to go back and fix it or change it,” Wells said. “It was a lot of work.”
During their time together, volunteer and AGCO Corp. Chief Engineer Clint Richter discussed principles and job details with the children. The Rube Goldberg preparation teaches problem-solving and ways to use engineering to find solutions.
“We hope to see a renewed excitement for engineering in this age group and to let the students know that the stuff they’re learning in school right now is the stuff you use as an engineer,” Richter said.
Failures are part of the learning process, and according to Richter, much of an engineer’s job includes fixing mistakes.
“It’s not a mystery, we just keep building on to it and now we love doing it,” Richter said.
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Similar regional showcases are held in Springfield, Champaign and Peoria. The top three winners move on to the Engineering Open House at the University of Illinois later in March.
Andrew Jordan, president of the Engineering in the Classroom board, said the program began in 1999 by former director Rexlyn Nicole because her father was an engineer, and she never really saw how a student could work their way to becoming an engineer.
“The world is getting increasingly more complex and increasingly more technologically advanced, and that can’t happen without engineers and science-minded types,” Jordan said. “Engineering as a whole is a vitally important structure to continue the growth of society.”
Hundreds of students have taken part in the program, and some have even gone on to receive jobs in engineering, Jordan said.
“If we can at least open the eyes of the kids at this age to what they’re capable of, who knows what they will grow into as they get older,” Jordan said. “I also think if we can spread the message around the Decatur area, their districts and throughout the state, that’s going to be our path forward.”
PHOTOS: Area fifth grade teams show their ingenuity at Rube Goldberg competition
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