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St. Olaf wins national Rube Goldberg Machine Contest

By Kari VanDerVeen
March 28, 2009

Thousands of hours spent designing and engineering a machine that took 239 steps to change a light bulb paid off for a group of St. Olaf students Saturday.

Dan Endean '09, alternate captain for the St. Olaf Rube Goldberg team, celebrates a good run at Purdue University Saturday.
The Oles won the national Rube Goldberg Machine Contest held March 28 at Purdue University, beating teams from the University of Illinois, Ferris State University, the University of Texas at Austin, Pennsylvania State University and Michigan Technological University. St. Olaf was the only liberal arts college in the competition as well as the only school without an engineering program. In addition to winning the competition, audience members also voted to give St. Olaf the People's Choice Award. (See video of St. Olaf competing in the contest here.)

The annual competition aims to bring to life Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Rube Goldberg's drawings of complicated machines and gadgets that accomplish simple tasks. Using as many whimsical, counterintuitive steps as possible, the machines must complete a task determined each year by contest organizers.

This year's task was to replace an incandescent light bulb with a more energy-efficient light-emitting design, and the Oles designed a machine that broke a light bulb and replaced it with 150 light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that spell out "St. Olaf." They began working on the machine in September as part of a course taught by Assistant Professor of Physics Jason Engbrecht, and devoted thousands of hours -- and almost every weekend this semester -- to preparing it for competition.

The Oles' machine took 239 steps to break a light bulb and replace it with 150 LEDs that spell out "St. Olaf."
Each team had to run its machine twice for the judges at Purdue, with just 20 minutes between runs to reset the machine. "We are really excited to have won this," said Bern Youngblood '11, the team's captain. "The team put a lot of work into the machine, and we all learned a lot from the experience."

This was the first team St. Olaf has sent to the national competition, which is dominated by competitors from large public universities with top-notch engineering programs. The St. Olaf team's status as an underdog has attracted national media attention.

To win the national competition, students had to design and construct an elaborate contraption with a highly detailed theme. The St. Olaf team's machine featured a "Mad Scientist" motif that depicted the Oles venturing into the lair of a "super villain" named Dr. Carleton Knight. Their journey involved a monorail, laser-activated gates, a winding path leading to a genetics lab and an X-ray of one of the mad doctor's less successful experiments, among many other things.

St. Olaf team members celebrate their victory.
Although the machine had a whimsical theme, it incorporated some serious science. Team members built a record player from scratch that, as it spins, allows lasers to fire through pre-drilled holes. The lasers are picked up by light sensors, which trigger several other steps and eventually enable a gate to open and release a ball.

The team also constructed a Gauss rifle, a mechanism that uses a magnetic chain reaction to launch a metal ball at a very high speed, and a simple harmonic oscillator, a system that employs simple harmonic motion and magnetic induction to trigger the start of a car moving along a track. They even turned an ice auger into an Archimedes' screw that caught pool balls and took them from the machine's lower level to an elevated track.

The University of Illinois took second place at the competition with its "Scene of the Crime" machine based on the board game Clue. Ferris State University, a former winner of the national competition, took third place with a "House of Rube" machine based on Goldberg cartoons.

Top and bottom photos courtesy of Purdue University; read Purdue's news story about the contest.

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or