by Jim Boyle
The St. John Stem Club, a group of kids heading into fourth, fifth and sixth grade at the Elk River parochial school, will compete Friday at the Minnesota State Fair.
The team qualified by winning a blue ribbon in the Rube Goldberg Competition at the Sherburne County Fair.
This was no small feat.
The task calls for creating a Rube Goldberg contraption that uses everyday items in a whimsical and complicated way to interact with a series of steps and chain-reactions to accomplish the simple task of raising a flag and waving it.
Every year the Minnesota State Fair challenge is different, but this was Sherburne County’s first time participating in the program. The competition was hosted by 4-H but open to 4-H participants and non-4-H participants alike. That allowed the St. John program to take part.
Teacher and STEM coach David Inselmann said it literally took his team more than 100 tries before it could get all 10 or 11 of its machines to work together at once and accomplish the mission.
When the flag finally went up and waved gloriously for the team, its members burst into the kind of excitement seen when people win Olympic gold medals. Inselmann said the joy they experienced was so genuine, because they knew “they did it.”
Inselmann knew going in he had many responsibilities in leading the group, but one of the most important was to let them struggle at times.
“They had this incredible sense of accomplishment,” he said. “They knew they did it.”
That special moment was captured on video, but for these sleuthing mathematicians, physicists and engineers who came together from various backgrounds, with various interests and differing abilities they still had to get their contraption to the county fair and make it work again.
That is no easy feat, either.
For all the pride he had in his kids’ accomplishments along the way, he estimated the chance of winning entrance to the state fair was about 5 percent. And it would be OK if they didn’t make it.
“I tell the kids this contest is about more than winning and any trophies,” he said. “It’s what you learn about yourself and others and learning how to work as a team.”
Their self esteem in many cases soared. The kids learned things about themselves they never knew, and things about their peers they never would have even guessed.
While the whole team participated in the design and testing process, each began to specialize in certain areas.
The kids spent two months working on their Rube Goldberg contraption. The theme of it was “Toy Factory”, and the team even selected a theme song, “Power House,” made popular in Looney Tunes cartoons.
The kids on the team learned about physics and engineering principles like simple machines, potential and kinetic energy, mechanical design, energy transfers and mechanical advantage.
They also learned about the many roles that make an efficient engineering team like researching, design engineers, testing engineers, record keeping, discussion leaders and presentation developers.
One team member came up with an ingenious discovery that allowed their flag to wave in two ways.
Another came up with a lever that the group affectionately named “The Trevor Lever” after their teammate who demonstrated how he could flourish given a chance to use his hands and think mechanically.
“What I like is this contest taps multiple intelligences, aptitudes and abilities,” Inselmann said. “I tell them that the question to ask yourself is not ‘How smart are you?’ but ‘How are you smart?’”
Anne Burdick, the parent of a fourth-grade girl said her daughter learned quickly to listen to people’s ideas and that everyone brings something different to the table. Burdick said her daughter also learned where her strengths fit in the project, and was very proud of the work.
“She told everyone she knew and some people she didn’t know that (her team) made it through the Sherburne County Fair and on to the State Fair,” she said.
Burdick said the lessons the kids learn are invaluable, especially with the increasing number of robot-controlled CNC machines.
“Being able to understand how machines work, why they do what they do, how to solve issues that rise along the way and learning how to make it operate faster and more efficient is critical,” she said.
The St. John Stem team will put their abilities and skills to test on the afternoon of Aug. 25 in the 4-H building at the Minnesota State Fair. They will set up at 1 p.m., and show time is at 3 p.m.