Home » Students create giant chain-reaction machines with innovative curriculum

Students create giant chain-reaction machines with innovative curriculum

Dr. Nielsen Pereira of WKU’s School of Teacher Education talks with VAMPY student Will Walters of Lexington.

BOWLING GREEN (July 9, 2012) — The tasks are simple — pin a button to the wall, release balloons, pull a lever. But the processes students at The Center for Gifted Studies’ Summer Program for Verbally and Mathematically Precocious Youth are using to achieve these goals are complex — trigger LEGO robots that turn a handle, move a wall, activate a pulley, launch a toy car, pull a string, and finally accomplish the original task.

It may seem like the long way around to some, but for these students in VAMPY’s Rube Goldbergineering class, that’s the whole point.

The class, taught Dr. Nielsen Pereira, assistant professor in Western Kentucky University’s School of Teacher Education, challenges students to conceptualize, create and perfect Rube Goldberg machines, which use chain reactions to complete very simple tasks in complex ways. Imagine the board game Mouse Trap on a scale that encompasses programmable LEGO Mindstorm robots, roller coaster sets, and much more. Rube Goldbergineering also involves employing a variety of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) skills.

“The students use knowledge from every area,” Pereira said. “There’s a lot of math and science. Technology is used to animate the robots, and their machines will ideally tell a story, which ties in language arts.”

The activities also closely mirror the engineering design process and expose students to a potential profession.

“I know for a fact that we don’t have enough engineers,” Pereira said. “There aren’t enough people graduating from engineering programs, and this helps students find that career or at least explore engineering as a career.”

This is one of the reasons Innovate Kentucky — a new initiative promoting STEM interest and education in the Commonwealth — sponsored Rube Goldbergineering at VAMPY 2012. Innovate Kentucky is funded by a James Graham Brown Foundation grant and is a partnership between The Center for Gifted Studies, the Carol Martin Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science and WKU’s Honors College. Along with Rube Goldbergineering, Innovate Kentucky is sponsoring a VAMPY sustainability course and will sponsor a VAMPY mobile application development course in the near future, said Dr. Julia Roberts, executive director of The Center for Gifted Studies and Gatton Academy.

Pereira and his two colleagues from Arizona State University, Dr. Shawn Jordan and Dr. Odesma Dalrymple, have had success in this mission, exposing students to engineering and other STEAM fields. The trio have been developing the curriculum for Rube Goldbergineering — now officially named STEAM Labs — for several years and have tested the model with gifted students in grades five through 12 during Saturday programs and summer camps. The locations of these programs range from an American Indian reservation to a high school in Trinidad and everywhere in between. But in each case, the same is true: the students enjoy and learn from the curriculum.

“They love it. They just love it,” Pereira said. “They have an opportunity to be creative, to work with other students. It’s very structured, but at the same time, they have a lot of flexibility.”

VAMPY continues through July 14.