Physics and Calculus Students Adapt to New Challenges to Continue Rube Goldberg Projects Tradition
Valley Echo Staff
20 August 2020
During late May and early June, AP Calculus and AP Physics students, fresh off the grueling AP testing schedule, turn their attention to something a bit more fun. In the last weeks of the school year, the second floor west wing of Passaic Valley High School dedicates itself to the Rube Goldberg Projects. The hallways are full of students constructing and then testing their machines to eventually display for the rest of the eager student body and staff. However, when health-related school closures threatened the continuation of this honored tradition during the 2019-2020 school year, Math Teacher Ms. Lori Quail and Physics Teacher Mrs. Elena Shtraks adapted the project to fit the current need.
"When I began to realize that returning in May (or even June) was not likely, my initial thought was one of heartbreak for my students. Rube Goldberg is a big selling point for students to take those challenging [AP] courses. We demand a lot of hard academic work from these students from September to the AP tests in May," said Ms. Quail. "Rube Goldberg is one of the things they look forward to as a reward for that work. That time of year in our hallway is truly my favorite. It's when they get to be hands-on, move around, build, collaborate with their peers, bring together concepts from Calculus, Physics, Chemistry, and Computer Science... and relax! So Mrs. Shtraks and I knew we had to do something to attempt to replicate the beauty of Rube Goldberg Projects from home."
Rube Goldberg machines, named after the cartoonist and engineer who popularized them, are designed to complete a task through indirect and overly complex methods. They typically involve a series of simple machines whose functions are triggered by the previous machine in the sequence, creating a domino-like effect until the ultimate goal of the contraption is completed. Typically, student participants are divided into a small number of large groups and complete the majority of their work in class, with teachers checking on their progress daily.
To accommodate students completing projects while learning remotely, Mrs. Shtraks and Ms. Quail made significant changes to this year's procedures. Students were given the option of working alone or with one classmate, as long as the students' parents consented, to complete their projects. Students gathered materials on their own and built their projects in their homes, sending a video update of their progress to their teachers every Friday. "Sorry moms and dads for those of you who had your living rooms taken over for those weeks," said Ms. Quail. Understanding the obstacles and concerns over space, materials, and social distancing, students were offered an alternative assignment to the Rube Goldberg projects.
Nineteen students participated, creating ten unique Rube Goldberg machines. "The smaller number of students working on each project naturally caused the projects to be a bit smaller than usual, but in no way were they any less impressive," said Ms. Quail. "What stood out to me was the overwhelming desire of the students to do this project no matter where it had to be." Pictures of each project are contained within this article. Scroll over the picture for a list of participants.
Continuing the tradition of the Rube Goldberg Projects was particularly important this year. Mrs. Shtraks retired at the end of the 2019-2020 school year. Mrs. Shtraks is responsible for bringing the cherished tradition to Passaic Valley as a way to provide her students with a fun practical application of the concepts learned throughout the course. Each year, the Rube Goldberg Projects expanded in participation, popularity, and complexity.
As they do every year, the students who participated in the 2020 Rube Goldberg Projects showed their creativity, ingenuity, and work ethic with their designs. "Thank you for continuing the tradition from home. I hope that you enjoyed working on your Rube Goldberg projects despite the disappointing situation we found ourselves in," said Ms. Quail, addressing her students. "I truly enjoyed watching your videos each week to check your projects, but also to hear your voices, see your faces, and get a glimpse of your personalities that I missed so much. I wish you all the best and hope to see you very, very soon!"