Rube Goldberg Machine Exhibition – Was it a Fail or Not?

The Acton Academy learning journey is unique in several “disrupting” ways. One of these is that portfolios and exhibitions take the place of report cards.

I come to these exhibitions as a mom wondering:  What has my child learned in this project? Did he strive for excellence? Is his effort evident? Did he find joy? How can I talk with him to gain a deeper understanding of what he is taking away from this? Am I proud? Impressed? Frustrated? Annoyed? Disappointed? Curious?

Yesterday’s Rube Goldberg experience in the elementary school was a display of many things.  The scale of the creation was surprising. The students struggling to work under the pressure of a crowded audience was impressive.  The announcement that interventions would be necessary was unexpected. The evidence of teamwork was obvious. The engagement of the students was tangible.

And then came the countdown… showtime….

The machine did not work. Not even with interventions.

Am I disappointed? Yes.

Is my child upset? Yes.

Is this a failed project? No.

Can the school improve? Always.

From my behind-the-scenes view, I knew the students were more nervous than usual when demonstrating their learning to their parents. In addition to emotions running high, there was a time crunch for set up that impacted their work that relied so much on precision. Most of the students had worked extremely hard over the past weeks to master their independent challenges and grapple with the physics properties of Simple Machines.

Walking away, my questions flowed: Was the learning evident to parents? Should we have let the individual teams show their own machines alone? Was it too ambitious to connect them together with so little practice time?  Is it valuable to show a project that has not reached a final point of excellence? Is it risky to expose the process of learning in all its messy glory?  Is it too much to present something that relies on practice and perfection in order to work at all? We are very much about process at Acton but we, too, aim for excellence in outcomes – how can this project be improved to demonstrate both?

I regret that I had not planned to send parents a list of questions to ask their child in order to gain more from the experience. This list would have included:

Scientific experimentation and content:  Is it patience and perseverance that must be mastered as a scientist or is it a driving curiosity that fuels the work? How did it feel to do something over and over again wondering if you may fail often until it is perfect? Which machine was the most fun to work with? Which machine do you think you will use the most in your life? In the failure or success of the big machine, what was more important: the individual machines or the connections between them? Is this similar to working alone and in a team? Can scientists work all alone and change the world or is collaboration with others essential? What motivated you to work on your machine: the fun of success or pressure to perform in front of others?

Practice and Failure: How important is practice in the process of scientific experimentation? Is failure what makes you motivated to practice? If you had more time to practice as an entire group, could it have worked or were there flaws in design? The videos the students watched each day in project time were complex and beautiful Rube Goldberg Machine examples. At a minimum, they took 83 “takes” to create. How much of what we see day-to-day is the end result of someone who practiced and failed a lot? For example, music, movies, television shows, newspaper articles, advertisements, the barista’s heart shape on my latte foam? For example: That guy playing the guitar on stage with his band – he makes it look so easy. How many hours alone do you think he had to spend practicing to make it look easy? How many then with the group? What did he have to sacrifice in his life to perform like that? Do you think he gets bored practicing?

Expectations: Did you expect the big Rube Goldberg Machine to work? Is it hard or easy to be honest with yourself about how well you have done something? If people hadn’t been watching, would you have felt the same way about the quality of your work? What lessons were learned about time management during the session? If you expect to work really hard every day, does that make it easier to do so? Who sets your own expectations – your parents, guides or yourself? What motivates people to work hard: making a little progress all the time or hoping for a big success? When do you enjoy working hard? Is flow the same thing as hard work? Why or why not?

Continued Learning: What questions would you still like to explore about machines and how the laws of physics work in the world? Is there a project you’d like to do over spring break related to this? Have you ever wondered how a dishwasher works? A telephone? Maybe we can take something apart and see how other machines work.

Final note to self: Thank the guides more often for letting the Eagles solve their own problems as they work. It sure was tempting to do it for them to please the parents. Thank you, Ms. Terri!

Now, tomorrow, the middle school Rube Golberg Machine. It better be perfect.