Kings Valley Charter School students discuss their strategy at the Rube Goldberg Machine Challenge. (Photo provided by Jannet Kohanek/KVCS)

In a Rube Goldberg machine competition last weekend in Corvallis, Kings Valley Charter School students did their best to create the type of zany contraptions that would make Professor Butts proud.

Goldberg, a cartoonist who once won a Pulitzer Prize, became famous for drawing Butts as an inventor of chain-reaction-type machines that were designed to perform in an indirect and overly complicated manner. (Think “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” and the breakfast-making machine).


In 1987, Purdue University engineering students staged a National Rube Goldberg Machine Contest. Different variations followed at places like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Carnegie Science Center. Today, students nationally participate in contests under Goldberg’s name.

Enter Christopher Schoberl, Ashbrook Independent’s head of school, who sent out invitations to “an exciting science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics challenge we have developed” called the Rube Goldberg Machine Challenge.

Jannet Kohanek, KVCS teacher, said that when she switched grade levels from first and second to fourth and fifth, she hoped to be able to have her students build a crazy marble run in the classroom. But when she came across the letter that had been sent out by Schoberl, she got excited about the possibilities.

“I thought, ‘wait until my students hear this.’ We can do it,” she said. “The next day my students jumped at the opportunity. Nearly every student in my class put their names on the sign-up list.”

Everett Ferguson, fifth grader who served as a team captain for the Golden Eagles, works on the group’s entry at at the Rube Goldberg Machine Challenge (Photo provided by Jannet Kohanek/KVCS)

Schoberl’s rules called for students to be in grades 5-8, but Kohanek got permission from the competition’s host to bring her fourth graders. KVCS ended up registering four teams involving 24 students in grades 4-6 “making us by far the youngest contestants,” she said.

Kohanek said each team was required to have a coach but unfortunately, two of them couldn’t make it on competition day “causing a mad dash” to find fill-ins. But it worked out with a coaching crew that included Kohanek, Terrence Sims, Scott Castle and Chancy Ferguson — the latter two filling in for official coaches who were sick or unavailable.

“We were given instructions to build a machine to squeeze hand sanitizer onto a tissue using a rat trap somewhere in the contraption,” Kohanek said. “In addition, a mystery item was provided the day of the competition. That mystery item had to be added to machines in a ‘meaningful’ manner. This year’s mystery item was a rubber chicken, which some teams turned into an inclined plane while some removed the head, added weights and used it in a pulley system as a counterbalance.”

One of the KVCS teams, known as the Golden Eagles, won the competition’s Most Creative Award. Team members included fifth grader and team captain Everett Ferguson, sixth grader Liam Castle, sixth grader Dalton Lawrence, fifth grader Kenzie Nathan, fifth grader Emily Leep and fifth grader Lexi Etheridge.

“This experience helped us learn about engineering and design,” Everett Ferguson said. “While we did it, we also learned that hot glue burns, rat traps hurt and choosing the right saw is important.”

Ferguson added, “Good leadership is very important because keeps people from arguing and keeps everything organized.”

Said Leep, “The rat traps made it scary, so I wonder how we would score. But it was still fun.” Nathan added, “I learned that razor knives are very sharp” and added, “Listening to everybody’s ideas and opinions will help you get along.”

Etheridge shared that “Mrs. K got very excited when we decided to do this.”

Kings Valley Charter School students work on their project at the Rube Goldberg Machine Challenge on Feb. 12 at Ashbrook Independent School in Corvallis. (Photo provided by Jannet Kohanek/KVCS)

Kohanek said the students learned tangible skills and standards through the process, plus made many intangible gains.

“As far as science they learned numerous science standards, including how energy can be transferred in various ways between objects, to use visual displays in presentations to enhance the development of ideas, that a system can be described in terms of its components and their interactions, how to design a solution to a problem, generate and compare solutions, plan and carry out tests in which variables are controlled and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model that can be improved,” she said.

“They also used literacy skills to write step-by-by instructions and project analysis,” Kohanek added. “Computer skills in desktop publishing were practiced when they designed their trifold presentation boards. Public speaking skills were honed as they practiced and presented a speech about their machines.”

Kohanek said equally important was that students learned collaboration skills as they worked together toward a common purpose.

“I simply can’t be prouder of our team,” she said. “They worked tirelessly during school days and after school building, testing, repairing and trying again and again. Through all of their failures, they never gave up leading to eventual success. How gratifying!”

Among other students participating, the following observations were shared about the experience:

• Sixth grader Jade Kiersey said the event “brought me much closer to my friends.”

• “Snapping rat traps and popping balloons are very loud and can startle you if you are not expecting them. Even if you know it’s coming, it still scares you,” said fifth grader Lily Benintendi.

• Fourth grader Macie Ring concluded, “Sometimes it’s hard to get along with your friends because we all have our own ideas.”

• Joan McFarlin, fourth grader, said simply, “Saws are sharp.”

• “Competitions are stressful, especially when they are timed,” said Ellie LeVitre, fourth grader.

• “Rat traps are fun to snap but not when you catch your fingers!” Felicity Smith, fifth grader, said.

• Fourth grader Maryam Wanly shared, “I learned from this experience that winning is only part of it. For me, it was more about fun.”

• “It is sometimes hard to not get fed up with your teammates, but it is better when you work together,” said fifth grader Nate Matsuda. “I sometimes got a little bit frustrated and fed up, but when I listened it worked out.”

• Said Brooklyn White, fifth grader, “In a really big room, like the gym we were in, it echoes really bad. For me, that triggered anxiety.”

• “At the beginning, it was really hard, but when we listened to each other it got easier,” Jackson Bruce, 5th grade.

• “It is so much fun to work as a team,” Tobi Lettenmaier, fourth grader, said.

• Another fourth grader, Calla Silvernail, said, “I felt like the mystery item, a rubber chicken, was staring at me and looked like it was screaming the whole time.”

• “The competition was fun,” fourth grader Ellie LeVitre, said. “I learned how to take the head off of a rubber chicken!”

• “Ideas don’t always work no matter how good they sound at first,” fifth grader Falisha Smith said.