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Exploring the engineering design process at home


Jon Armfield teaching engineering class.

It was an engaging project-based, distance-learning assignment: Build a Rube Goldberg Machine over several weeks using household items to learn about the engineering design process.

The 20 students in Jon Armfield’s Principles of Engineering Class embraced what he called “a home edition” of a Rube Goldberg machine project with determination and enthusiasm. The result? They produced their version of the machine, which is meant to perform a simple task in a complicated fashion that generally includes a chain reaction.

All the students’ devices have one common element - imagination.

Explaining the rationale behind the project, Armfield said: “Normally, in our physical classroom we have stock robotic parts and computers that the students use to create a range of things. With distance learning, they do not have access to these classroom supplies. My solution was this project.”

In building the machines, Armfield said the students sharpen their problem solving, collaboration, innovating, and engineering design skills. In between the learning and the building, Armfield hoped the students also had some fun.

“I think the students who are very motivated to go into engineering as a career found the project to be as enjoyable as I did,” he said.

A different graphic for the engineering design process.

Not to be left out of the fun, Armfield joined his students by taking part in the assignment and building his own Rube Goldberg machine.

“The project,” he added, “did give me an escape from the stress of trying to balance distance learning with family life along with the anxiety of handling the COVID-19 pandemic.”

To build the machine, Armfield worked with his students, mostly via Zoom and Google Classroom, to identify the task they wanted to achieve, brainstorm a series of at least 10 steps or actions, and use household items to complete the task. He also told them to be original. To document their efforts, the students made a video and submitted it to Armfield.  

Armfield said he was “very pleased and surprised” with the gadgets the students made. He described the students’ machines as “creative,” and the project as “successful.”

In building their machines, the students used, among other household items, tennis and golf balls, plastic cups, domino and chess pieces, and toy cars. Their creations range from a hook to remove latex gloves to Rube Goldberg machines that turn on a laptop, dunk a basketball, and raise a mini flag.

There’s also Armfield’s project,  a Rube Goldberg machine that sends a message not only to his students but to all students at Gibbons.


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