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How to Build a Rube Goldberg Machine

Need to help your kiddos build a Rube Goldberg Machine? Check out these simple ideas and tasks to help you get started on this super fun project.

build a rube goldberg machine

Using trial and error, ingenuity, and a little bit of luck, kids can create their own Rube Goldberg machine. This is a fun activity for children of all ages.

The Bear Cub Scout adventure Make it Move has a Rube Goldberg machine requirement. The Scouts can either draw a machine or build one.

Make it Move Requirement 4. Complete one of the following:

A. Draw a Rube Goldberg–type machine. Include at least six steps to complete your action.

steps in a rube goldberg machine

B. Construct a real Rube Goldberg–type machine to complete a task assigned by your den leader. Use at least two simple machines and include at least four steps.

So how do you get started with this activity?

Getting Started with a Rube Goldberg Machine Project

Some of the Cub Scouts may have never heard of Rube Goldberg, so you'll want to share a bit of information about him and what he did.

Rube Goldberg was both a cartoonist and scientist who created fun cartoons that helped solve simple problems. For example, one of his first cartoons was the self-operated napkin, which wiped the operator's face after a series of complicated steps. Goldbert was born in 1883 and died in 1970.

example of rube goldberg machine

Preview this video for the song This Too Shall Pass, by the band OK, Go to see if it's something your kids would enjoy. They'll notice a very elaborate Rube Goldberg machine.

The results show a number of scrapped pianos and televisions. You can actually see all of the trial and error that went into the engineering of this machine.

This basic 7-minute video, Rube Goldberg Machine Lesson, from Kim Sigsbee gives an overview of Rube Goldberg; ideal for elementary school students.

Extend the learning with additional resources like Just Like Rube Goldberg: The True Story of the Man Behind the Machines.

Simple Machines

Rube Goldberg projects use simple machines to perform the tasks. They are:

  • Inclined Plane
  • Lever
  • Wedge
  • Wheel and axle
  • Pulley
  • Screw
rolling the marble
Our machine used two inclined planes

In addition to the Rube Goldberg machine, Make it Move has two more requirements about simple machines:

Requirement 2. Make two simple pulleys, and use them to move objects.

Requirement 3. Make a lever by creating a seesaw using a spool and a wooden paint stirrer. Explore the way it balances by placing different objects on each end.

The Cub Scout Nova award Swing! is all about levers. I wrote about an activity that uses a ruler, a quarter, and a pencil to create a 1st class lever. You can use that activity to satisfy Requirement 3.

Rube Goldberg Machine Task Ideas to Inspire Creativity

Your Scouts will need to complete a task that you assign in at least 4 steps. Scouts are encouraged to use at least two simple machines in their Rube Goldberg construction.

Check out this book if you need some ideas.

Here are a few task suggestions to help you guide your Cub Scouts along. Remind your Cub Scouts that they will need to create a slope or series of simple machines to help build momentum and get the ball rolling, so to speak.

Build up blocks or books to create an incline; that's a great start to a successful Rube Goldberg machine.

Scouts can use heavy-duty cups, string, and a hook to create a pulley-system. Hanging components over the edge of a table can create a simple base for the pulley. 

If Scouts have K'nex, or other building and construction tools and toys, they can use those to create gears or even a wheel and axle.

Suggested Task Ideas

Here are some ideas of tasks that you can assign to your den.

  • watering a plant (could be done in conjunction with the Grow Something Adventure)
  • popping a balloon
  • shutting a door
  • dropping something into a garbage can
  • put toothpaste on a toothbrush

The task for the Rube Goldberg machine that I made with my sons was to crack an egg.

Ideas for Rube Goldberg Machines Using Household Supplies

The beauty of creating a Rube Goldberg machine is that the possibilities are endless when it comes to supplies. Encourage your kids to look around their home for useful and interesting items they could incorporate into their creation. This allows for some fun out-of-the-box type thinking.

rube goldberg machine supplies
Some of the supplies we used in our Rube Goldberg machine

Some easily accessible items include:

  • aluminum foil
  • containers and cups
  • Hot Wheels cars and tracks
  • cardboard
  • toilet paper and paper towel holders
  • dominoes
  • aluminum cans
  • marbles
  • ping-pong balls
  • kitchen funnels
  • batteries
  • magnets
  • string
  • paper clips and other office supplies
  • other small toys

Managing Expectations

A key aspect of the Rube Goldberg Machine requirement is helping your Scouts understand the importance of trial and error in engineering and physics.

Failure is an important part of the process. As Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” This attitude encourages a growth mindset and lets Scouts understand that perseverance is imperative to success.

Our Family's Machine

My boys and I created a Rube Goldberg machine that would crack an egg.

We used:

  • Marble
  • Hot Wheels car
  • Wrapping paper tube
  • Paper towel tube
  • Dominoes
  • Ruler
  • Popsicle sticks
  • Duct tape
  • Bowl
  • Egg

Here are our steps:

  1. Roll large marble down through a wrapping paper tube. (Inclined plane)
  2. Marble hits the Hot Wheels car causing it to roll forward. (Wheel and axel)
  3. Hot Wheels car hits dominoes that are arranged on a ruler that has one end propped up higher than the other end.
  4. Dominoes cascade and hit an egg that rolls down a paper towel tube that has been cut open.
  5. Egg lands in the bowl and breaks open.

During our first trial, the ruler was angled too high, and the car didn't hit the dominoes, so we had to figure out a way to lower it.

After we solved that problem, we found out that the dominoes were't reaching the egg, so we added a few more.

The dominoes were then reaching the egg, but the egg didn't move. That's because we had the paper towel tube taped too high onto the side of the table creating a little ledge. The egg couldn't roll over the ledge.

Finally, our Rube Goldberg machine was successful!

More Resources

Science Fair Central, a partnership between Discovery Education and Home Depot, has a fun Rube Goldberg family activity. Download the Zany Inventors activity on this page.

And Scout Life magazine has an article about Rube Goldberg machines.

Yours in Scouting,
Sherry

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