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'That Team with the Girls' returns home

By James Daly '13
March 23, 2011

Team captain Caroline Gusa '11 checks a detail on this year's "child's room" Rube Goldberg contraption.

Editor's note: Although the St. Olaf team did not place during this year's March 26 competition, they showed their spirit with a variation on the college's fight song, as seen at the end of this video.

When St. Olaf students arrive at Purdue University this weekend to compete in the national Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, they will be wearing pajamas and carrying stuffed animals to match the "child's room" theme of their carefully designed contraption. But the team's apparel is not what Associate Professor of Physics Jason Engbrecht thinks will make the team stand out from the others.

The eight women on the team, he notes, will likely outnumber the women on all of the other teams at the competition combined. In the St. Olaf team's first two appearances at the national Rube Goldberg competition, it brought half the women to the competition. In a sly reference to that fact, this year the team chose to dub itself "That Team with the Girls" — a name that will appear on the form that judges use to evaluate the teams.

The name had started as a joke among members, but it stuck when members realized that it also served a purpose. "We wanted to emphasize a distinguishing aspect our team," says Rachel Burlet '12.

It's just one of several factors that will make this team stand out from the others at the competition. For example, five of the team members are majoring in science disciplines other than physics, including team captain Caroline Gusa '11 — a math and art double major. Engbrecht intentionally reserved half of the class that builds the Rube Goldberg machine for non-physics majors. "It was really nice that even though I am a psychology major, I was still able to be in the class," Burlet says.

Having a variety of majors represented on the team "embraces the fact that St. Olaf is the only liberal arts school at the competition" and contributes to effective problem-solving, Gusa says. "Everybody thinks in different ways. By collaborating, we can find the easiest path that will be the most productive."

"It fulfilled a lot of my hopes as far as being illuminating and inspiring," says Sarice Barkley '12 about the Collaborative Design Seminar course that Rube Goldberg team members took during Interim.

While growing up, Gusa's mom taught her how to do basic electrical wiring, and from an early age she developed a "love for taking things apart and figuring out how they work." But when it came to enrolling in the Rube Goldberg course at St. Olaf, she hesitated.

"I like physics, but I am not good at it," she explains. Her fears were assuaged during a conversation with Engbrecht, who made it clear that any motivated person could succeed in the course. Gusa can now say with confidence that he was right — she's contributed just as much as the physics majors on the team. "Knowing different laws of physics does not help you use a hammer," she says.

A unique course
For eight hours a day, five days a week during Interim, students in the Collaborative Design Seminar designed and constructed their Rube Goldberg machine. Spending so much time with her classmates was a feature of the course that Burlet says made it different from any other she has taken at St. Olaf. "I really enjoyed that I got to know everybody very well," she says. Gusa says that the eight-hour workday and the fact that each team member was assigned a specific job made it feel like a "real-world work environment."

The course ended in January, but the team members continued to build, modify, and improve the aesthetics of their machine up until spring break. Engbrecht says that from start to finish, the team will have put in 3,000 hours to construct their machine. It may not be an overstatement to say that for at least some of the team members, the course is the most fun and most demanding they have ever taken. "Being team captain was about 200 times more work than I thought it would be," says Gusa, who adds that the experience has been "amazing."

Physics major Sarice Barkley '12 enrolled in the course to explore her career interest in engineering, and says that it met her high expectations. "It fulfilled a lot of my hopes as far as being illuminating and inspiring," she says.

Read and watch the 2009 and 2010 St. Olaf teams.

Contact David Gonnerman at 507-786-3315 or