Hands-on Activity: Design Your Own Rube Goldberg Machine

Contributed by: Center for Engineering Educational Outreach, Tufts University

Photo shows close-up of gears, two intermeshing cogs.
Students create their own Rube Goldberg machine
Copyright © Microsoft Corporation, 1983-2001


Engineer and cartoonist Rube Goldberg is famous for his crazy machines that accomplish everyday tasks in overly complicated ways. Students use their new understanding of types of simple machines to design and build their own Rube Goldberg machines that perform simple tasks in no less than 10 steps.

Engineering Connection

Engineers continually dip into their wells of creativity to come up with new and innovative ways of completing tasks. The classic and fundamental simple machines are incorporated and combined into an endless number of items designed by engineers and used everyday. This activity challenges students to bring out their creative side in designing complex machines to perform simple tasks.

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

Suggest an alignment not listed above

Pre-Req Knowledge

A familiarity with the six types of simple machines: inclined plane, wedge, screw, lever, wheel and axle, and pulley.

Ability to safely use tools, such as screwdrivers, saws, drills and hammers.

Learning Objectives

  • Create practical representations of simple machines (prototypes).
  • Follow the steps of the engineering design process.
  • Use tools safely.
  • Learn the five elements of a technology system: goal, inputs, processes, outputs and feedback.

Materials List

  • examples of simple and complex machines (pulleys, hammer, ramps, bicycle, wheelbarrow, etc.)
  • illustrations of Rube Goldberg machines
    Weekly invention: Safety device for walking on icy pavements. When you slip on ice, your foot kicks paddle A, lowering finger B, snapping turtle C extends neck to bite finger, opening ice tongs D and dropping piillow E, thus allowing you to fall on something soft!
    Example of a Rube Goldberg machine. See more cartoons at www.rubegoldberg.com.
    Copyright © Rube Goldberg is the ® and © of Rube Goldberg Inc.
  • assorted wood, metals, plastics and composites
  • foam core board and extruded foam insulation make good bases as they are light, sturdy, and easy to attach things to
  • miscellaneous construction materials such as wire hangers, cardboard, screws, wire, string, glue and tape
  • assorted tools, such as screwdrivers, saws, drills and hammers
  • poster paper, markers, crayons, pencils, rulers, etc
  • assorted discarded "raw materials," for student prototypes
  • assorted materials that students bring from home, which may be returned at project end


(Show students a few Rube Goldberg cartoons that feature his crazy inventions.) For 55 years, Rube Goldberg's award winning cartoons satirized machines and gadgets that he saw as excessive. His cartoons combined simple machines and common household items to create complex, wacky and diabolically logical machines that accomplished mundane and trivial tasks.

His inventions became so widely known that Webster's Dictionary added "Rube Goldberg" to its listing, defining it as "a comically involved, complicated invention, laboriously contrived to perform a simple operation." His "inventions," drawn for our pleasure, can actually work. By inventing excessively complex ways to accomplish simple tasks, he entertained us and poked fun at the gadgets designed to make our lives easier. In his words, the machines were a "symbol of humans' capacity for exerting maximum effort to achieve minimal results."

He believed that most people preferred doing things the hard way instead of using simpler, more direct paths to accomplish goals. The resulting inventions are collections of bits and pieces, parts of now useless machines, scraped together to achieve an innovative, imaginative, yet somehow logical contraption to conquer the job at hand.

The following are examples of tasks that can be illustrated using the Rube Goldberg technique: putting toothpaste on a toothbrush; adhering a stamp to a letter; selecting, cleaning, and peeling an apple; turning on a radio; toasting a slice of bread. Can you think of your own?


prototype: A first attempt or early model of a new product or creation. May be revised many times.

schematic: Showing the basic form or layout of something.



As necessary, review with students the basics of simple machines: inclined plane, wedge, screw, lever, wheel and axle and pulley.

As necessary, provide students with the training to use any tools they need, such as screwdrivers, saws, hot glue guns, drills and hammers.


  • Gather materials, including those provided by students.
  • Make copies of the Student Activity Worksheet.
  • Choose a time frame for completion of machines.

With the Students

As a class:

  1. Review the types and combinations of simple machines in use around us every day.
  2. Brainstorm how simple machines might be incorporated into more complex machines.
  3. Brainstorm simple tasks that lend themselves to the project.
  4. Look at illustrations of Rube Goldberg machines.
  5. Discuss any safety concerns that students must be aware of pertaining to the supplies and tools available to them.
  6. Explain requirements and expectations for the assessment (grading) rubric. Perhaps minimum number of steps and/or minimum number of types of simple machines incorporated. Given classroom space constraints, it may be helpful to set a maximum overall volume of the finished machine prototype.
  7. Divide the class into groups of students.
  8. Have each team identify a basic task and design a machine to accomplish that task in no less then 10 steps.
  9. Have each team produce a schematic design, labeling each part and its function, indicating materials, and describing each step needed to accomplish the task.
  10. Have each team use tools and machinery to build a working prototype of its design.
  11. Have each team make a class presentation of its prototype, including a demonstration and explanation of the process. Use the attached rubric for grading.


Investigating Questions

  • How can we build a device that incorporates all the six types of simple machines and accomplishes a basic task in no less then 10 steps?
  • How can we represent the process used to complete this design from goal to feedback?
  • Does the prototype accomplish the basic task in no less then 10 steps?
  • How does the prototype work to accomplish this task in no less then 10 steps?
  • Does or could this prototype have a practical application?
  • What changes would we make to the prototype based on our testing experiences – both successes and failures - during the design process? How would you make it better, funnier, more reliable, safer? (Engineers ask these questions when they design and improve products and machines.)
  • How do we use tools to shape, cut, and/or fabricate elements of the design?


Additional Multimedia Support

Learn more about Rube Goldberg and see examples of his cartoon illustrations at the official Rube Goldberg website: http://www.rubegoldberg.com/.

Refer to the information, lessons and activities of the seventh-grade Simple Machines unit in the TeachEngineering collection.

Learn more about the steps of the engineering design process at: https://www.teachengineering.org/engrdesignprocess.php


Rube Goldberg is the ® and © of Rube Goldberg, Inc. Students can enter designs in the annual Rube Goldberg Machine Contest. For current information, contact Rube Goldberg Inc. at www.rubegoldberg.com or 212-371-3760.


© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2005 Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Supporting Program

Center for Engineering Educational Outreach, Tufts University

Last modified: July 21, 2016