With a loud pop, the pressure built up by a tab of Alka-Seltzer shot off a cap on a canister, propelling it into a lever that turned on an electrical circuit.
The completed circuit caused a cup to lift off from it perch atop a papier-mâché volcano, sending acetone spilling down into a Styrofoam cup. The chemical dissolved the cup, triggering a weight to drop.
The steps were among more than two dozen employed by a team of five clever students from the North Warren Central School District to land a fake tree in tub of vermiculite. And on their last try of the day, their complex contraption worked flawlessly.
“Guys, that was beautiful,” exclaimed an elated Dillon Engelmann, as a crowd around the machine gave the students a round of applause. “That was so perfect.”
Engelmann’s team, dubbed the Super Awesome Roaring Dinosaurs of Epicness, was among 19 competing at the annual Rube Goldberg Machine contest at Union College’s fieldhouse Saturday. An engineer and Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, Goldberg depicted imaginary inventions that epitomized “man’s capacity for exerting maximum effort to accomplish minimal results.”
The competition challenges high school students from the greater Capital Region to bring the principles of Goldberg’s imagination into physical reality. Students must tap equal amounts of scientific knowledge and creativity to build a ludicrously complex machine to solve a simple problem — in this case planting the fake seedling.
“Each machine has a design that is unique and wonderful,” beamed James Hedrick, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Union, who organizes the event each year. “I look at them and all I see is positive things.”
This year, the challenge was to build a device capable of planting a tree using at least 20 steps. The resulting machine would need to be able to complete its cycle twice within five minutes, doing so with no less than five forms of energy conversion.
“And then they get points just by being creative,” Hedrick said.
Engelmann’s team employed a dinosaur theme in its device, which used just about every last square inch of the 5-foot-by-5-foot space allotted. Marbles were used as “dinosaur eggs” and plastic dinosaurs were featured prominently though out the device, including a pterodactyl that collides with a model plane during the sequence.
“The last run was so great,” said Engelmann, 17, a veteran of three Goldberg competitions at Union. “I couldn’t have asked for anything better. Well, maybe flashing lights.”
At the other end of the fieldhouse, Schenectady High School sophomores Yashwant Outar and Nityananda Parmeshwar were packing up their machine after performing for the judges. The transportation-themed device used a train, helicopter, plane, boat, dump truck, car and fire truck to land the fake tree into a makeshift pot.
Some parts didn’t work out too well for their team of five, Outar said. A matchbox car didn’t drop down exactly how they planned and the model plane they built spun a bit more recklessly than they expected.
But for their first attempt at the competition, both teens agreed they did well. With two years remaining before graduation, they’re confident they’ll get another stab at winning the competition.
“Next year, we’re hoping for first place,” Parmeshwar said.