Granville Crew Wows Judges at Rube Goldberg

When the Granville High School ‘Green Team’ heard the announcement, they were stunned to say the least.

Not because they had won, but because according to the announcement – they hadn’t.

The team members had a number of reasons to believe they should be finalists in the 2011 Union College Rube Goldberg Contest held Saturday, April 9 at Union College in Schenectady.

The student team of Christina Rice, Corrine Brown, Gabe Pratt, Jordan Penor and Taylor Davidson did indeed take  home the coveted first-place trophy at the annual challenge with the presentation “Welcome to Pandora,” drawing from the movie “Avatar,” but like most engineering problem, it took a little straightening out. The victory marked the second time in three years a Granville team has one the challenging competition.

The team’s task, the overall theme for the competition, called for designing a complex machine of more than 20 steps using at least five forms of energy to accomplish a simple task — in this case — planting a tree.

However, the initial announcement had the honor going to another Granville team due to a mix up.

The annual engineering challenge asks students to figure a way to accomplish a simple task in an unnecessarily complex way in the tradition of the artist the contest is named for.

So after a day of questions and compliments from the professional engineers who evaluate the machines built by 18 other high school groups from across the region, the group of amateur engineers from Gary Gendron’s technology club was stunned not to hear their names called for the top prize.

“When second and third went, we knew it was between us and one other team, so then they called a Granville team and it was not us so we were like – Wow,” Penor said.

“We were freaking out a little,” admits Rice, one of the creative leaders of the team. “You were freaking out a little, I seem to recall some tears,” Davidson, the other half of the creative force in the team said.

Two other teams from Granville traveled to the competition. One comprised of Matt Bernard, Evan Young, Hayden Miller and Sam McDermott, and the other was Keith Gould, Garret Brown and Madison Williams.

As it turned out each team from Granville had an assigned table.

“They put down the table numbers on the judging sheet, so they called up the wrong team,” Rice said. The team members said everyone was looking for the team with a blue-faced member to come up and claim the trophy, when that didn’t happen, people were confused.

The Granville teams assumed they had three tables and could take whichever they pleased, they set up, they ran the machine for the judges, they answered questions. The blue face people were looking for was Davidson, who painted his face to look like one of the movie’s characters. While the makeup had little impact with the judges, “One of them asked me if I was a Smurf,” Davidson said some people got it. “A kid came up to me and asked me if I was Avatar,” he said. 

Meanwhile, the judges who were so impressed with their machine were writing down notes placing the winning machine at the wrong tables, thus the confusion when the final award was announced.

“The judges kept calling other judges over to point out how ours completely buried the root ball, most of the others weren’t doing that,” Rice said.

Just one of the numerous engineering challenges the team had to overcome came from the end point of the task –burying the tree.

The tree itself wouldn’t stay upright, it either fell over when it was placed or was knocked over when the vermiculite used as soil was poured over it.

Rice said she got some inspiration from a children’s toy to overcome that problem. “You know what a Weeble-Wobble is, right?” she said.

The team was free to construct any kind of tree they wanted to and so Rice decided the ‘root ball’ at the bottom of the tree could be a ball half loaded with BBs. Meaning however far the tree was tipped over it would always right itself.

“I basically figured out that low center of gravity (would work) designed it in CAD and built it,” she said.

Burying the roots also proved a problem.

The team had plastic food storage containers on a conveyor belt carrying the vermiculite to the tree, but the containers kept getting snagged in the tree.

The simple solution put more flexible leaves from a dollar store fake plant on the Weeble-wobble tree.

The dirt pushed the tree away, the contents of the container nearly cover the root ball and then before the tree springs back the first container has passed by just in time for the second container. “The judges were bringing other judges over so that was a big thing,” Davidson said.

The team used 26 steps and 10 different forms of energy to complete the task – a feat that earned bonus points and more than a few extra questions from the judges.

“The judges had some very detailed (questions). I had to go through every singles step with them and explain the chemical process of our solar-hydrogen cell combo and going into the hydrogen-oxygen reaction,” Rice said.

The bottom line, team members said, was the judges wanted to see if the students knew what they were talking about and had come up with their own ideas versus having their ideas handed to them by a teacher or parent.

“One of the judges asked outright to Jordan and Gabe – ‘Did your teacher come up with this concept?’” Rice said.  

“They were making sure we knew what we were talking about,” she said.

The team said one of the keys to success had been finishing early. With two weeks to go to the competition they were troubleshooting and running tests with building long behind them.

“We had time to trouble shoot and paint, because last year Christina didn’t want to bring paint to the competition,” Davidson said.

Last year the team placed third with a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory model.

Technology teacher Gary Gendron said this team worked really well together and played off of the various strengths of each member.

“In a situation like this you need diversity so the strengths can compliment each other; there was good communication as well and everyone had a role to play,” Gendron said.

“This group was just outstanding,” he said.

Gendron said he was actually not familiar with the science fiction blockbuster film the machine is based on; if he had been the team might not have been able to keep its theme a secret for much of the production time.

The machines are run four times for the judges. During the judging the students have to explain the machine operation and the energy forms used. The machine has to be able to run and be reset within five minutes. The judges are made up of engineering professionals who evaluate the operation of the machines based on the stated objectives and how well the machine operated during the “run-off”.

Thanks to the additional troubleshooting time, the team said their machine was nearly perfect when run for the judges only stopping once.

The Union College Rube Goldberg competition is an annual event sponsored by Union College, General Electric, and Lockheed Martin.

The event is designed to attract students into the engineering and technology fields, Gendron said.

Each year a different challenge is presented in January involving a machine designed based on the Rube Goldberg philosophy of building a complex machine out of everyday objects.

In the 2009, the first time Granville won the competition, challenge the machine had to draw a two color smiley face on a piece of paper.

The winning machine from this year can only be seen on video, at least for a few more weeks as the Goldberg champion spends the next 30 days after winning the competition on display at the Schenectady Museum.

Gendron said the team will present the machine at an upcoming board of education meeting after the machine is released from the museum.

Remember to check out the video of the machine working here on the website.







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