Students have fun with physics

tmiller@mercedsunstar.comMay 14, 2014 

Scores of dominoes, dozens of marbles, a length of shoestring, a cannon and even a wind-up chicken played a part in an annual physics assignment Tuesday at Merced College.

The 16th annual Rube Goldberg Day on campus had dozens of students lining up their convoluted devices before making them complete a simple task – tossing a water balloon into the air.

The assignment is named after Rube Goldberg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, sculptor and author who died in 1970. He’s best known for his drawings depicting complicated machines that serve a simple function, like the Self-Operating Napkin or Simple Alarm Clock.

Shasta Doser, a mechanical engineering major from Atwater, and her team used marbles, a series of declining ramps, a rubber mallet and an air cannon to send the balloon more than 30 feet through the air.

The team of four spent more than 45 hours between them on building the machine. They also set it off at least 150 times, she said, which gave them an ironic acronym to live by. “K.I.S.S. – keep it simple, stupid,” the 21-year-old said with a laugh.

For the final step of the device (the part that sends the balloon flying), some teams used slingshots, one used a small catapult and another used a homemade crossbow.

Professor Lana Jordan assigns the project to students in her upper-level physics class. She called the assignment both “fun” and “a capstone” for everything students study in the class, short of theoretical physics.

Students were tasked with demonstrating a machine, with at least 15 working parts, that runs without assistance. She said those that did will receive an A for the assignment.

She said students first hear about the assignment in January, shortly after the semester starts, and many look forward to it. She said some of the students have never used tools like a hammer and get to do that through the assignment, giving them an extra thrill.

“It gives people a sense of power to think, ‘Oh, I made that,’ ” she said.

Sun-Star staff writer Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or tmiller@mercedsunstar.com.

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