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Not exactly rubes of inventions

| Saturday, Dec. 10, 2005

Most engineers are indoctrinated at the start of their careers to KISS --- Keep It Simple, Stupid -- when designing machines.

But for about 140 high school students who braved winter weather Friday to take part in the fifth-annual Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, efficiency was not the goal.

The competition at UPMC Sportsworks at Carnegie Science Center challenged 35 teams from school districts across Western Pennsylvania to build a machine that could perform a simple task in the most complicated, convoluted and chaotic way possible.

The event has become a national craze. It is named after Goldberg -- the late Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist famous for his satirical drawings of ridiculously complex and wacky gizmos designed to do mundane jobs, such as polishing a shoe or peeling an apple.

"The purpose of the contest is to encourage the students to put the scientific principles they've learned in school into a practical project," said Janet Henke, regional contest coordinator for the North Shore science center.

Other sponsors included the Engineers' Society of Western Pennsylvania and Westinghouse Electric Co.

This year, contest participants spent countless after-school hours and weekend afternoons constructing oddball gadgets that could squeeze toothpaste on to a toothbrush --- in no less than 15 steps and no more than two minutes.

The winning team from Belle Vernon Area High School created a contraption with a Las Vegas theme -- complete with fake money, playing cards and a makeshift slot machine and roulette wheel.

Students were limited only by their imaginations.

"It was a lot of fun," Cody Barker, 16, of Buffalo, Butler County, said yesterday while demonstrating his team's Monopoly-themed machine with friends D.J. Lingelbach, Amy Dean and Cory Chelko from Freeport Senior High School.

First, a ball traveling down a colorful track of property cards from the board game released a silver boot -- like a giant version of the game piece. The boot then set in motion several steps involving water, string, cork and lots of rubber tubing. Ultimately, a mousetrap sprung, pulling closed a hinge that squeezed paste on the toothbrush.

Clad in pirate hats, returning Rube-competitors Tessa McAnally, Kate Masiuk, Jen Snyder and Claire Xu -- all North Allegheny High School juniors -- proudly showcased their 40-step contest entry called "Arrrgh." The team placed fifth.

The particularly intricate apparatus featured a handmade treasure chest, bandanna, cannon, spyglass, wooden ship and an ill-fated action figure forced to walk the plank to get the toothpaste where it belonged.

"This is all a chain reaction," said Xu, 16, of Marshall.

Aspiring engineers Yannick Cohen, Steve Ung and Andy Wilson -- all Hampton High School seniors -- stayed up late Thursday to put the finishing touches on their machine, dubbed "Waking up in the morning."

An old-fashioned alarm clock falling off a platform triggered a cascade of mechanical steps mimicking the typical morning routine of these high school students that ended, of course, with a good tooth-brushing.

Ung, 17, said he plans to salvage the gold-plated clock from their contraption for use at Carnegie Mellon University next year, where he plans to study chemical engineering.

"Oh no, you don't need to wake up in college," Cohen, 17, reminded his teammate.

Engineers who volunteered to be judges scored the machines on effectiveness, design, number of steps and how much they embodied Goldberg's creative spirit. Prizes were awarded yesterday to the top five entries.

Additional Information:

Wacky winners

Winners of the fifth-annual Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, sponsored by Carnegie Science Center, the Engineers' Society of Western Pennsylvania and Westinghouse Electric Co.

First place -- Belle Vernon Area High School, Westmoreland County Second place -- Rocky Grove High School - Venango County Third place -- Riverside High School, Beaver County Fourth place -- Conemaugh Township Area High School, Somerset County Fifth place -- North Allegheny Senior High School, McCandless Sixth place -- Riverview Junior-Senior High School, Oakmont

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