Pittsburgh Students Practice Engineering Skills With 'Mouse Trap'-Like Contraptions

Dec 14, 2015

 

North Allegheny High School sophomore Mason Blackburn wanted Alex the Lion to escape the zoo, but it wasn't that simple.

The team hit a few roadblocks along the way, he said. Levers overcomplicated the motions, so they tried a simpler pulley system. It took a lot of trial and error, Blackburn said.

"We certainly learned a lot," he said. "We had several of these swinging hooks and each hook would transfer energy to the next hook. Eventually that was too complicated."

North Allegheny joined students from 29 other schools to compete in the Chain Reaction Contraption Contest at the Carnegie Science Center on Friday. Each team was responsible for designing, building and testing a Rube Goldberg machine, similar to the board game Mouse Trap, to move a marble by chain reaction to another location. 

The annual celebration of National Engineer’s Week challenged students to harness various principals of physics like gravity and momentum to accomplish each task. No electronics, just engineering.

Blackburn's team used inspiration from the movie Madagascar to use 20 steps to free Alex the Lion. 

Volunteers from Westinghouse Electric Company judged students machines in multiple categories, including total time it took to move the marble and how many times students had to intervene.

Linda Ortenzo, the director of STEM programs at Carnegie Science Center, said students learned from their failed attempts throughout the day.

“Engineers who are here judging will tell them to fail fast and often. (It) is really one of the best things engineers can do,” she said. “Learning to embrace that and use it is a very fundamental element of their work. These students come out the other side, and they feel a whole lot more accomplished for it.”

The Remake Learning series is a collaboration of 90.5 WESA, WQED, Pittsburgh Magazine and NEXTpittsburgh.