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The Great Rube Goldberg Polymer Machine

Grades: 7-12 Physics or Physical Science
Author: Penny Porter
Source: This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. EEC-1161732. "Rube Goldberg" is the description of a type of machine used by many educational institutions for contests. There are no set rules…only that the machine must be "over-engineered!"


Using the Rube Goldberg over-engineered method of design, students will find and utilize only polymers to construct a machine that will move a Polymer object (ball, car, etc) from point A to point B. They must incorporate a Shape-Memory Polymer and at least one example from each category of polymers found in the recycle codes for plastic #1 – #7. The object must change directions at least three times during the trip. This entire lesson allows teachers to meet science content standards and introduce polymers and other science concepts using Best Teaching Practices, Hands-on/Minds-on Learning and Authentic Problem-based Learning.


What should students know as a result of this lesson?

  • (DOK Level 1) Identify different types of polymer’s (recycle codes # 1-#7); Recognize the properties of different types of polymers
  • (DOK Level 2) Follow a routine procedure to produce a polymer (SMP = Shape Memory Polymer); Predict the motions of a rubber object as it moves through the Rube Goldberg machine
  • DOK = Depth Of Knowledge Levels

What should the students be able to do as a result of this lesson?

  • (DOK Level 3) Assess properties of various polymer products (i.e. PETE soda bottles) and how they will perform in the machine team will design
  • (DOK Level 3) Use concepts to solve non-routine problems
  • (DOK Level 3) Hypothesize how to construct Rube Goldberg machine with polymer products
  • (DOK Level 4) Design a machine that will move rubber objects from point A to point B.
  • (DOK Level 4) Write an argumentative paper regarding polymers usage- are they saving our resources/environment or adding problems to the environment?
  • DOK = Depth Of Knowledge Levels


  • Rubber objects to use as moving object and other polymer materials will be provided by students
  • Shape memory polymer – a method to prepare one using a rubber band and lauric acid is provided, or Shrinky Dinks or commercial shrink wrap can be used here



Before the production of the shape memory polymer, a pretest will be given to determine how much the student knows about polymers, plastics, what can be recycled...etc.

[To get students excited about polymers we will first watch: and then make a shape memory polymer (lab found in worksheet section as worksheet 1)]

  • After inspecting our SMPs, we will return to our seats and view a "Rube Goldberg" machine in action ( Explain that a Rube Goldberg machine is a contraption that is deliberately over-engineered and performs a simple task in a complex way.
  • Explain to the students that we are going to make a Rube Goldberg contraption using only polymers. Ask the students if they know what a polymer is. List the student's answers on board.
  • Describe polymers and the recycle symbols (worksheet 2)
  • Tell the students the rules of the project (included within the project worksheet 3)
  • Split them into teams for the Rube Goldberg Polymer Machine project.

Assessment: The assessment is informal at this stage. All students should be involved in this discussion. Student's questions are welcomed.


  • Each team should organize themselves and become familiar with the goal.
  • Students may use internet or library resources to research polymers and Rube Goldberg machines
  • Students will design the machine following the rules given (project worksheet 3)
  • Students may test the machine and revise if necessary
  • Each team will run their machine
  • Teams will take turns videotaping the run.
  • Each member will evaluate their machine's run (rubric 1)
  • Each team member will evaluate each member of the team's teamwork (rubric 2)

Assessment: The assessment will be based upon two rubrics which are located within the worksheet section. Teacher should see that students are all engaged building the machine.


As a class review and discuss the machines and the results of the teams by viewing the video of each run

  • Students will receive a worksheet to take notes of each machine (worksheet 4)
  • Critique the designs
  • Analyze the function of the seven different types of polymers incorporated into the machine
  • Describe how different teams may have used similar polymers to perform similar functions
  • Using rubric 1 again, evaluate the other team's machines.

Assessment: Students should be actively involved in the evaluation of machines. Each student must hand in rubric 1 listing their score of each machine, worksheet 4, and rubric 2 for their team.


As a final project, each student will write an argumentative paper to support their claim either for (pro) or against (con) the production of polymers. Their claim must be supported with facts found from at least four different sources. Student must avoid plagiarism and follow the standard format for citation of references. Directions will be given in worksheet 5.

Assessment: Paper will be graded as the major paper for that grading period. (Rubric 3)



Best Teaching Practices

  • Hands-on/Minds-on Learning
  • Communication skills
  • Inquiry approaches
  • On going, embedded, authentic assessment

Alignment with Standards

NGSS Standards:

  • HS-PS3-2. Develop and use models to illustrate that energy at the macroscopic scale can be accounted for as a combination of energy associated with the motions of particles (objects) and energy associated with the relative positions of particles (objects).
  • HS-PS3-3. Design, build, and refine a device that works within given constraints to convert one form of energy into another form of energy.* [Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on both qualitative and quantitative evaluations of devices. Examples of devices could include Rube Goldberg devices]

Common Core Standards:

  • RST.6-8.3 Follow precisely a multistep procedure when carrying out experiments, taking measurements, or performing technical tasks. (MS-PS1-6)
  • RST.6-8.7 Integrate quantitative or technical information expressed in words in a text with a version of that information expressed visually (e.g., in a flowchart, diagram, model, graph, or table). (MS-PS1-1),(MS-PS1-2),(MS-PS1-4),(MS-PS1-5)
  • WHST.6-8.7 Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration. (MS-PS1-6)
  • RST.11-12.3. Follow precisely a complex multistep procedure when carrying out experiments, taking measurements, or performing technical tasks; analyze the specific results based on explanations in the text.
  • WHST.11-12.1. Write arguments focused on discipline –specific content./li>

Ohio Standards:

  • Science Inquiry and Application: Design and conduct scientific investigations, Use technology (internet) to improve investigations, Formulate and revise explanations and models using logic and evidence (critical thinking), Recognize and analyze explanations and models, Communicate and support a scientific argument
  • Energy and Waves: Conservation of Energy, Transfer and transformation of energy (including work)
  • Physics course content: Motion, Forces, Newton's Laws of Motion, Energy
  • College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing: 1. Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and sufficient evidence. 8. Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.
  • [Note: The Rube Goldberg Machine will reinforce all of Newton’s Laws of Motion, Momentum, the Conservation of Energy Law and Motion in two dimensions (motion down an incline and projectile motion.]

Content Knowledge

It is assumed that the average high school or middle school student knows nothing about polymers. Students will be introduced to polymers using videos, samples, internet.

Student must search the internet, ask questions of instructor and research textbooks to build a knowledge base. This knowledge may be added into the Learning Cycle at any level.


General classroom safety rules should be followed.

When building the machine, care should be taken when using scissors or knives to cut plastic.

A general warning regarding the misuse of rubber bands should be given prior to lab.


Natural and synthetic polymer materials are significant to our everyday lives. Our world is moving in the direction of replacing wood, steel, and other resources with polymers. We must become more informed regarding their wide range of properties, what materials they come from, and investigate how to dispose of them properly without harm to environment, wildlife, and humans.


Assess each section of work using the rubrics and worksheets given; determine the success of each team’s Rube Goldberg machine by checking that they followed the rules; Grading the paper

Other Considerations

Grouping Suggestions: YOYO = You’re on Your Own!

Pacing/Suggested Time:

A. = Making Shape Memory Polymer (Activities in Lesson)

B. = Designing and Producing the Rube Goldberg Machine (Activities in Lesson)

C. = Argumentative Paper involving Polymers (Activities in Lesson)

Portion A will take one day to mix and one day to cure (day is free from polymer work unless teacher wishes to use this day to introduce project) on the third day it will be ready.

Portion B will take a range of two to five days to complete. This will be determined by several factors:

  • Teacher providing all polymer materials or are the student teams finding their own
  • Students making/designing and building during class time or are students designing and building on their own

One day must be used to actually run each machine and video tape each run.

Portion C can be assigned as a large paper due any time within several weeks.

Printable PDF Worksheets

Making a Polymer Worksheet 1

Recycle codes of Polymers Worksheet 2

Rube Goldberg Polymer Project Worksheet 3

Rube Goldberg Machine Conclusion Worksheet 4

Rube Goldberg Machine Evaluation Rubric 1

Team Member Evaluation Rubric 2

Polymer Argumentative Paper Worksheet 5

Evaluation of the Paper Rubric 3