February 26, 2008

Argonne holds hamburger machine contest

Hamburgers were bungled, assembled, and dissected at the Argonne National Laboratory’s Rube Goldberg Machine contest last Friday, as six teams of local high school students competed to build hamburgers using handmade machines at the Chicago Children’s Museum at Navy Pier.

The contest is named after cartoonist Rube Goldberg, famous for his comics depicting complicated machines that do simple tasks. In the spirit of Goldberg, teams are assigned a different task each year and must design and create a complex contraption from diverse materials to accomplish their goal. This year they were asked to build a machine that could assemble a hamburger in over twenty steps.

“The true spirit of the contest is to do it as mechanically as possible. The idea that these machines could work was not something Rube Goldberg could ever have imagined,” said Elaine Bentley, the museum’s manager of family programs.

The goal of Argonne’s annual contest is to expose students to challenges that they might face in possible science or engineering careers, said David Baurac, Argonne spokesperson.

“We want them to see how fun it is to solve science and engineering problems in a group setting. That’s what being a scientist or engineer is like in the real world,” he said.

The top three Chicago-area teams go on to compete against downstate teams at a state-wide tournament to be held at Navy Pier next month.

Students from defending state champion Wilmington High School won first place for best machine. Wilmington team member Zack Van Duyne said they worked on their machine for two months.

“We’re really proud of what we’ve done,” he said. “We all learned more about engineering and teamwork.”

Using creativity and working with random materials to build the contraption will prove valuable experience for Van Duyne, who said he wants to be an architect.

Rube Goldberg contests are held around the country, but Argonne was the first organization to sponsor the contest in the Chicago area. Bentley said that the laboratory wanted to encourage learning, ensuring that the contest’s first place trophy was bigger than most sports trophies.

“Argonne wanted the Rube Goldberg teams to go back with their huge trophies and say brains matter,” she said.

The contest draws a crowd of spectators each year. This year, several elementary school teachers brought their classes to watch the competition.

“It’s a great modeling experience for younger kids to see,” Bentley said. “It’s a wonderful blend of self-expression and science.”