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Peachtown Elementary

Peachtown Elementary students devise Rube Goldberg contraptions.

The first school week in January was dubbed Rube Goldberg Week at Peachtown. Students, most of whom had never heard of Rube Goldberg, were introduced to the man and his work. Goldberg was a cartoonist, inventor, sculptor, writer and engineer. His famous contraptions were just imaginative and complicated designs to accomplish the simplest of tasks.

The building of a Goldberg-style contraption is an amazing exercise in building play into learning, exercising the creative mind, assembling and adapting simple machines, and, in our case, navigating teamwork. All of the Peachtown students from prekindergarten through eighth grade worked in teams; their first task was to design their contraption on paper and, after a quick review of some basic principles of physics, to identify each energy transfer in their process.

The next step was to acquire the necessary materials and build their contraptions in just a few short days. Teams were encouraged to use artistic license to make their contraptions appealing to the eye. One team had a series of themes that included a SpongeBob tropical station replete with palm trees and a pineapple, a fairy theme, and a segment with Batman dropping a basket over the crook as the final object of the contraption. Popping balloons full of pennies, messages rolling out on toilet paper, tipping cups, balance beams and marble runs made up just a few of the dozens of ideas put to use.

The biggest challenges for the students were overcoming the design glitches as they moved from paper to real life and navigating such hands-on work with a team. Each team found its own way of making things work, from delegating artistic components to building in sections to employing six hands on a job at once.

A couple of days were devoted just to modifications and dozens of trial runs. Modeling clay, duct tape, and K'NEX came in very handy. I found myself being pulled away from my desk to drill holes in poles and search the attic for just the right piece of junk. Space was reserved in the Wells College Sommer Center for the children to set up their contraptions for testing and display. On the final afternoon, we held a demonstration for families. Happily, every one of the contraptions, some of them remarkably complicated, worked!

Projects like these require a great deal of flexibility. As the school was temporarily filled with chairs on tables mounting ramps and elaborate K'NEX gears teetering in their clay footings, some regular classes were given over to the contraptions; even music class was humorously devoted to learning about Bach's Goldberg Variations. The idea of a theme and variations was curiously appropriate as the students' contraptions evolved into a series of variations on their original theme.

This one week taught physics, team-building, creativity, tenacity and ingenuity, but what the children experienced was the fun of building a great contraption and pride in the success of their “run.” My favorite school moments are those when you can sit back and witness a great accomplishment that never once became a chore. When a final class project ends in cheers, it is truly a job well-done.

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Barbara Post is the head of school at Peachtown Elementary School in Aurora, a small independent school offering grades prekindergarten through eighth. For more information, call (315) 364-8721.

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Features editor for The Citizen.