Teams vie for brightest idea at regional Rube Goldberg contest

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Changing a light bulb is a simple task, but how about completing that duty in 20 steps or more, or even designing a new kind of light source altogether?

Those are the tasks that will challenge teams in this year’s regional Rube Goldberg Machine Contest on Feb. 21 at Purdue University.

The 27th annual event will take place at 10:30 a.m. at the Purdue Armory. Doors open at 9:30 a.m. The winner will advance to the March 28 national competition, also held at Purdue.

The contest, sponsored by Phi Chapter of Theta Tau fraternity, is free and open to the public and is part of Purdue’s celebration of National Engineers Week.

The task this year is to replace an incandescent light bulb with a more energy-efficient, light-emitting design. Mike Mierzwa, Theta Tau’s national contest chairman and a senior in nuclear engineering from Morris Plains, N.J., said the task was intentionally created with room for interpretation.

“Teams can come up with a new way to replace a traditional light bulb with a commercially available efficient one or with a light-emitting device that they design. It’s really up to them,” he said. “Energy efficiency is such an important issue, so we wrote the task with that in mind, but there is also a lot of opportunity for creativity. Some pretty wild ideas have been proposed, so it should be a really fun contest this year.”

Mierzwa said teams will be encouraged to demonstrate that the incandescent light bulb works before switching it out with a new light source. “Replacing” a bulb could mean either unscrewing it from a socket or switching off the incandescent bulb and illuminating a light-emitting device.

Purdue teams competing in this year’s regional contest are the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the National Society of Black Engineers, the Purdue Society of Professional Engineers, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, the Society of Women Engineers, a new team called Garage Junkies, and the Illinois Rube Goldberg Society, made up of students from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

Blair Conner, regional contest chairman and a junior in electrical engineering technology from St. Charles, Ill., said the event usually draws a crowd of about 1,500 people. During the event, food will be for sale, and student contestants can talk with judges and corporate sponsors and drop off resumes.

The competition pits teams of students and their machines against each other with the goal of completing simple tasks in the most complicated ways possible. Teams will be judged by the complexity, creativity and ingenuity they use to design the machines and perform the task. The winning machines must complete two successful runs, and points are deducted if students have to assist the machine once it has started. Twenty steps is the minimum number required to complete the task, but most teams will use many more.

Last year, the Purdue Society of Professional Engineers won the regional contest for the fourth year in a row with a machine that assembled a hamburger in 101 steps. The team also won the national contest.

Sponsors for this year’s event are BAE Systems, Bosch Group Inc., Bose, BP, Lockheed Martin, Lutron Electronics, Motorola, Omega Engineering Inc., Priio, Rockwell Collins, the School of Mechanical Engineering and the College of Technology.

The regional high school Rube Goldberg Machine Contest also will be held on Feb. 21. The high school event is being coordinated by the Purdue Society of Women Engineers and will begin about 12:30 p.m. while the judges of the collegiate contest are deliberating. The winning team will advance to the national high school Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, which will be held at Purdue on March 28 following the national collegiate event.

High school teams participating are Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, Indianapolis; Centerville High School, Centerville, Ind.; Clinton Prairie High School, Frankfort, Ind.; First Baptist Church School, Mishawaka, Ind.; Greenfield-Central High School, Greenfield, Ind.; Highland Senior High School, Anderson, Ind.; Kouts High School, Kouts, Ind.; Owen Valley Community High School, Spencer, Ind.; Park Tudor School, Indianapolis; Reavis High School, Burbank, Ill.; Richmond High School, Richmond, Ind.; Terre Haute North Vigo High School, Terre Haute, Ind.; and Waldron Junior/Senior High School, Waldron, Ind.

The competition pays homage to the late cartoonist Rube Goldberg, who specialized in drawing whimsical machines with complex mechanisms to perform simple tasks. Goldberg earned a degree in engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1904. He worked as an engineer for the city of San Francisco for less than a year before becoming a sports cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle. He received a Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for his political cartoons published by the New York Sun.

In previous contests, students’ machines have been required to select, clean and peel an apple; make a hamburger sandwich; squeeze orange juice; make a cup of coffee; toast a piece of bread; put a stamp on an envelope; and drop a penny into a piggy bank. Winners have appeared on television shows including CBS’ “This Morning,” ABC’s “Good Morning America,” NBC’s “Today,” “Newton’s Apple,” “Ripley’s Believe it or Not,” the Fox News Network and CNN. Purdue’s national competition winning teams have been featured on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and “The Late Show with David Letterman.”

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