Chatfield Rube Goldberg Machine

Chatfield High School students, from left, Hunter Johnston, Sabina Boettcher, Carson Larrabee, Gage Tuohy, Nathan Goldsmith, Katie Ihrke, Rylee Burnett, Ann Warren and Jack Tuohy with their Rube Goldberg machine.

It’s money in the (piggy) bank. The Chatfield STEM team took first place in the April 6 national Rube Goldberg machine competition in Lawrenceburg, Ind.

It was the second straight title for Chatfield.

The contest, named after turn-of-the-century inventor Rube Goldberg, challenges students to complete a simple task using whimsical machines and multiple, complicated steps.

This year’s task was to put money into a piggy bank. Any theme or task leading to that end was allowed.

“It was interesting to see the interpretations of the final task,” said Rylee Burnett, a Chatfield sophomore.

The Chatfield team’s interpretation was a farmscape around a hand-built wood barn. It includeed a garden of golfballs painted like produce, a pig-launching catapult, plastic bottle corn cobs on stalks, a crop duster plane, a cow-abducting UFO and multiple other items.

Judges look at the technical complexity of the machines as well as the creativity.

“I think that’s where this team really stood out, is the creative aspect,” said Nora Gathje, science teacher and team founder.

There are few rules and guidelines in the competition. That allows for team creativity. However, teams are timed and machines must be smaller than 300 cubic feet. The Chatfield team’s project came in at 288 cubic feet.

The engineering feat of running the machine is half the battle. It has to come apart, fit through a doorway and get reassembled for competition.

Teams give a presentation to explain their machine before setting it in motion. The students gave a pun-filled farm and farm equipment-themed presentation.

(“Have you seen the movie about the tractor? No, but I’ve seen the trailer.”)

Teams then have eight minutes to set up the machine for a second run. In one of the competitions, the Chatfield team used seven minutes and 58 seconds of that time, said Nathan Goldsmith, a Chatfield senior.

“The tricky part of this machine is getting it reset,” Gathje said.

Gathje admitted she was nervous watching them set up and then start the machine at the competitions.

“I have been known to get sweaty palms,” she said.

The team was under pressure at the regional competition in Wisconsin last month. Weather had shaved more than two weeks of work time from the team. They were also facing the team that won the national competition two years prior. The Chatfield team had the machine running just in time for the competition.

“At the very last second, we had a few good runs,” said Jack Tuohy, a Chatfield senior.

“I knew we had a good machine,” said Gage Tuohy, a Chatfield senior.

“But we didn’t know if it was good enough,” added Carson Larrabee, a Chatfield senior.

Those three seniors — Larabee, Gage and Jack — were members of the winning team last year.

The younger members are already thinking ahead to defending the back-to-back titles. In a change of format, competitors were given next year’s task at the end of the national competition.

“The task is to turn off a light,” said Katie Ihrke, a Chatfield junior.

“Once we found out, right away, we started to think of ideas,” said Sabina Boettcher, a Chatfield junior. “It’s a very simple task, but we have to think of ways to make it complicated.”

That shouldn’t be too hard for this team. After winning the regional competition in Wisconsin, the team added more than 20 additional steps to the machine, including a garden with wood blocks and golf balls for produce.

Hunter Johnston, a Chatfield Junior, painted the backdrop and used markers to color the golf balls.

“They actually show up pretty well,” Johnston said of the prop produce.

The backdrop took several hours and nights at school to complete.

The barn cupola was designed and created on a 3D printer by Goldsmith.

The actual student hours that went into the endeavor is hard to calculate, but each student put in hundreds of hours of work.

The educational value of the project is just as hard to calculate. The combination of students’ skills, teamwork and engineering design made the competition a valuable learning experience, Gathje said.

“It’s the kind of learning that stays with you,” she said.

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General Assignment Reporter

John joined the Post Bulletin in May 2018. He graduated from the University of Iowa in 2004 with degrees in Journalism and Japanese. Away from the office, John plays banjo, brews beer, bikes and is looking for other hobbies that begin with the letter “b.”