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Rube Goldberg Strikes Again

UMass Lowell student standing with engineering project

By From the Shuttle, UMass Lowell's Campus Newsletter

            Say “Rube Goldberg” and almost everyone knows what you mean, although the master cartoonist himself died more than 30 years ago.

            Goldberg drew a series of wacky “inventions” that used the most convoluted and absurd methods to complete simple tasks. He described his cartoons as symbols of man's capacity for exerting maximum effort to accomplish minimal results.

            Rube Goldberg’s roundabout approach to problem solving recently inspired some remarkable inventions, created by UMass Lowell freshman engineering students. Six are now on permanent display in the Tsongas Industrial History Center’s inventions lab. The Center is an educational partnership between the Lowell National Park and UML.

            “I set the students an open-ended problem to turn a small light on and off,” says Plastics Engineering Prof. David Kazmer, who teaches the Introduction to Engineering course to about 200 students. “They could incorporate water, various power sources, gravity, any materials they could find in addition to the few components provided. And I assigned them to random teams, because that’s the way you work in industry.”

Kazmer saw the project as an opportunity for students to apply the engineering principles they are learning, to be creative and have some fun. The project also is part of Service Learning at the college, since the inventions were created for a community client.

Beverly Perna, museum education specialist at the Center, is delighted with the display of inventions.

“Teachers demonstrate them to the students in the Invention Factory program,” she says. “Here we have six different approaches to the same problem. It brings the engineering design process to life and reminds people that UMass Lowell has a famous engineering school.” More than 60,000 schoolchildren and teachers visit the Tsongas Center each year for a variety of interactive programs.

Why Rube Goldberg?

“It’s fun and captures the imagination,” says Perna.

In the end, Perna and colleagues Dr. Timothy LaVallee and Martha Barrett, project assistants at the Center, judged 70 projects. The inventions were rated on originality, creativity, playfulness and use of materials, in addition to meeting the performance requirements.

Perna is especially pleased about forging a closer relationship with the College of Engineering.

“The Center’s focus, the Industrial Revolution, is all about engineering,” says Perna. “James B. Francis [for whom the Francis College of Engineering is named] was the engineer of the Industrial Revolution ߝ he’s our hero, too.”