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Tiny trees and hot glue guns: Behind the scenes with the nation’s Rube Goldberg champs

In a room cluttered with Christmas ornaments, plywood and lots of hot glue guns, a group of Chatfield High School students is trying to figure out how to turn off a light.

Hunter Johnson (left) and Benton Ni work on making a slinky tumble down steps on a Rube Goldberg machine built by a team at Chatfield High School in Chatfield, Minn., on Feb. 24.Evan Frost | MPR News

In a room cluttered with Christmas ornaments, plywood and lots of hot glue guns, a group of Chatfield High School students is trying to figure out how to turn off a light.

That's the challenge of this year's national Rube Goldberg Machine contest.

And it's not like these competitors can just flip a switch.

Instead, they're creating an incredibly complicated machine made out of everyday objects to do the job in no fewer than 20 steps — but not more than 75 — and in under two minutes.

In early February, senior Ann Warren was ironing out one of those steps, testing it over and over — and over — again.


"Something needs to wind down this railing, and then knock down our star, which then triggers a trip wire," she explained.

This year, the team picked a Christmas theme for its project, which is laid out in parts on a small, chest-high set. A faux fireplace, tiny Christmas tree and candy-filled stocking are all elements of the elaborate story the team hopes to tell with the complicated contraption.

The team is vying for a third consecutive win in the high school category of the national Rube Goldberg Machine contest. Their first stop is regionals, being held in Milwaukee on Friday.

Last year’s challenge was to put money in a piggy bank. They chose a farm theme — get it?

Warren said there's at least one joke embedded in her team’s machine this year, involving a toy cat and mouse.

"The cat is going to get stuck in a mouse trap, which is funny because it would be the mouse, you'd think," she said.

Hilarity is signature Rube Goldberg. He was an inventor in the first half of the last century — as well as a cartoonist and a jokester. His namesake contraptions were meant to entertain by solving simple tasks in the most convoluted ways.

"The idea is to make the audience laugh, and to realize how ridiculous the whole thing is," said team adviser and Chatfield science teacher Nora Gathje.


She said the exercise also teaches her students physics, math and problem-solving.

"If I could have one program that all kids could be involved in, this would be it," Gathje said. "What they really learn is how to communicate, how to be part of a team, how to compromise."

Being on the winningest Rube Goldberg team in the country isn't a casual hobby, and the students don't get school credit for it. They've spent hundreds of hours in this cluttered studio already this school year — after lunch, after school and on the weekends, running the machine again and again.

"We have spent so many hours on it," senior Katie Ihrke said. "I can't even add it up in my head."

Ihrke said being on the team has solidified her interest in studying science and math in college next year.

And she learned to use power tools.

"At first I was definitely a bit hesitant, but now I can use them with no problem," she said.

Two weeks ago, before the team took off for regionals in Milwaukee with their sights set on nationals in April, their work was nearly done. Most of the steps went off without a hitch.


But there was still work to do — steps to tweak before the machine was competition-ready, including that final step of turning off a light in Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer's nose.

So they set the whole thing up once more — and ran it again.

This story originally appeared at: https://www.mprnews.org/story/2020/03/06/tiny-trees-and-hot-glue-guns-behind-the-scenes-with-the-nations-rube-goldberg-champs of story Questions or requests? Contact MPR News editor Meg Martin at newspartners@mpr.org © 2019 Minnesota Public Radio. All rights reserved.

Chatfield repeats as Rube Goldberg Champs

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