Rube Goldberg competition inspires middle school students' interest in STEM

UPPER BURRELL, Pa. -- Making an elaborate machine to ring a bell was the task for middle school students Nov. 24 at a Rube Goldberg competition at Penn State New Kensington.

More than 200 seventh- and eighth-graders from four local school districts -- Burrell, Franklin Regional, Kiski Area and New Kensington-Arnold -- honed their critical thinking and engineering skills at WEDIG’s third annual “STEM Challenge” by building Rube Goldberg machines.

“Each year, the students continue to amaze us with their enthusiasm and drive to make their ideas come to fruition," said Debbie Novak, STEM and youth programs coordinator at the campus.

Prior to the competition, students learned about career paths in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields from 30 STEM professionals representing a variety of occupations. The professionals shared their career stories, including successes and obstacles for their chosen vocations.

After the presentations, the students were divided into teams of five, and featured a blending of the school districts. The STEM professionals served as coaches, sharing their expertise, demonstrating the Rube Goldberg process, encouraging collaboration and analytical thinking, and supervising brainstorming and planning sessions.

The teams were given basic items, including pulleys, blocks, tubes, screws and duct tape, for their projects. The task was to build a machine to get a tinkle out of a small bell.

Rube Goldberg, who died in 1970, was a world-renowned cartoonist who used his sculpting and engineering background to draw complicated contraptions that needed numerous steps to performed easy tasks, such as pushing a button or filling a cup.

In addition to emulating Rube Goldberg, the students learned critical thinking, leadership, and team-building skills.
The event is sponsored by Westmoreland Economic Development Initiative for Growth, better known as WEDIG, and the New Kensington campus. Other patrons were Rotary International, Westmoreland County Community College, Five Starr Catering, Byers Taxi Service, Bozzone Family Foundation, Burrell Group, and Don and Debbie Kinosz.

For more information, contact Novak at

WEDIG is an organization of more than 100 business and government officials who work together to achieve economic growth and global competitiveness through private-public partnerships. Kevin Snider, chancellor of the New Kensington campus, spearheaded the establishment of the group in 2009 to foster quality development in communities throughout the county. Members come from five Alle-Kiski municipalities -- Allegheny Township, Arnold, Lower Burrell, New Kensington and Upper Burrell. Snider organized WEDIG into committees that deal with five issues: infrastructure; education and training; quality of life; business and investment; and health, wellness and spirituality. Penn State New Kensington students serve as interns to help each committee.

In addition to the Rube Goldberg competition, WEDIG sponsors the Quiz Bowl and the Math League, academic competitions for local high schools. The Quiz Bowl is a round-robin, match-play format, where teams of five students are asked a series of 20 questions. The first player to buzz in with the correct answer earns a point for the team. Most points or correct answers in the head-to-head competition win the match. Match record determines the champion. The championship rounds are held on campus in the spring.

The Math League brings together students from Burrell, Ford City, Freeport, Kiski Area, Kiski School, Kittanning, Leechburg and Valley high schools, and gives them the chance to go head-to-head with each other in a mathematics competition. Each school is allowed three teams of five students, competing against all the other teams in each round. Students answer two sets of eight questions within the 25-minute limit for each set. The questions in algebra, geometry and other areas of mathematics are developed by Penn State New Kensington’s husband-and-wife team of Xiang Ji, assistant professor of mathematics, and Ge Mu, instructor in mathematics. The competition is held at the campus in the fall and spring.

STEM Programming at the campus
The campus collaborates with the community on a number of innovative projects -- STEM Academy, COMETS, Kids in College, STEAM and ABC CREATE -- to help raise the STEM skill sets of public school students in the local area. The efforts are designed to enhance the region and attract business and innovation so that communities can turn around the economic decline in southwest Pennsylvania that has occurred over four decades.

The STEM Academy focuses on one-credit courses to introduce high school sophomores and juniors to STEM-related fields and to illustrate the types of skills and preparation needed to engage in those professions. Courses on Math, Engineering, Technology and Science (COMETS) targets seventh- and eighth-grade girls who have an interest in the STEM fields. Kids in College is a series of summer camps that integrate the STEM fields into the traditional summer classes. STEAM (STEM plus arts) prepares middle-school students for a competitive world through a strategy of enhanced education and career development opportunities.

Funded by a $300,000 grant from the Grable Foundation, the Alle-Kiski Best Practices Collaborative CREATE Lab Satellite Network Regional Hub, better known by its acronym ABC CREATE, works to identify strengths, resources, and needs related to STEM education within individual districts and the overall collaborative. Spearheaded by the New Kensington campus, the program features15 local school districts to share best practices and integrate technology into classrooms to prepare students for future careers. The collaboration will benefit approximately 40,000 students from kindergarten to grade 12 in the Alle-Kiski Valley.

For more on STEM programs at the campus, visit

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Last Updated December 16, 2015