At Rube Goldberg Camp, kids use creative solutions to tackle simplest of tasks

"It's all about just giving kids an outcome and letting them be creative," Rube Goldberg Camp instructor

This week, more than 15 youngsters in Laurel are working together to tip one cup of water into another. Of course, considering the project it's much more complicated than that.

Using cardboard boxes, tubes, marbles and toy cars, the third-, fourth- and fifth-graders attending a one-week camp sponsored by the Laurel Historical Society are turning the simple task into a convoluted, multi-step process in the style of a Rube Goldberg cartoon.

"It's all about just giving kids an outcome and letting them be creative," said camp instructor Fran Lotz, who teaches at Galway Elementary School in Silver Spring, "because so much of that is taken away in the school system, because it's such a prescribed curriculum."

Rube Goldberg, who died in 1970, is famous for a series of drawings depicting wacky contraptions that performed simple tasks in indirect and complex ways. His work has inspired international contests challenging high school and college students to create simple machines that perform a "task of the year" in more than 20 steps.

At the Laurel Rube Goldberg Camp, students work in groups of four, using everyday items to insert five or more "actions" into the process of moving water from one cup to another, Lotz said, with an action being anything that transfers energy from one item to another.

"It gives them a chance to interact with the other kids, collaboratively and just to let them be scientists, be inventors, be little engineers," Lotz said.

Lindsey Baker, executive director of the Laurel Historical Society, said that Rube Goldberg-style projects were a good fit for the camp, given her organization's goal of incorporating STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) into its history education.

The student projects will be judged on July 28, the last session of the four-day camp, based on artistry and construction, use of everyday items, the inclusion of five or more steps and whether or not it accomplishes the task. The top three will be awarded cash prizes.

"They've been doing great," said Heather Easton, 15, a volunteer at the camp. "They came up with pretty much all of this themselves."

She pointed to one group's simple machine, in which a marble rolls down a tube and lands in a cup that causes a pencil to tip upward, bringing with it a plastic cup that pours water into another cup.

"Sometimes I think they're smarter than I am," Easton said.

In another group's set-up, a Hot Wheels car races down a cardboard tube held up by a plastic bottle, for elevation, and knocks over three dominoes. The last domino sets another toy car into motion that is meant to knock one cup of water into another.

"Ready, set, go!" one student said, cueing another to push a mini-convertible down the start of the track.

Unfortunately for the students, the second toy car failed to knock over the cup of water.

"We need more force," said Elisha Lee, 8, a third-grader this fall at Forcey Christian School in Silver Spring.

"It's fun," Elisha said about the camp, which was funded by a grant from The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and free for students to attend. "We get to work as a team."

One of Elisha's group mates, 9-year-old Hope Covington, suggested taping two toy cars together to create enough force to knock over the water cup.

"Or maybe we can tape the tube up higher, to make the car go faster," said Hope, who is home schooled.

The students ran out of time to try out either idea.

"We have seven minutes until we have to clean up," Lotz said. "Make sure you draw what you have so you can start off right where you left off tomorrow."

"Aw," Hope said.

The Laurel Historical Society is partnering with Jailbreak Brewing Company in Laurel to host a Rube Goldberg contest for adults on Aug. 13 at noon. Registration costs $40 per team and includes a pint of beer for each team member. For more information, go to jailbreakbrewing.com.

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