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Teens win engineering contest

MIDDLEBURY — Jugs that, once upon a time, held vast quantities of mayonnaise top the tall, slender windmill in Middlebury Union High School math teacher Jay Harrington’s classroom. But just like the rest of this sculpture — cobbled together from recycled materials ranging from an old computer hard drive to pieces of a bed frame — the mayonnaise jars aren’t what they used to be, trading in their job as ho-hum food containers for the much more exciting role of windmill blades.
MUHS students constructed this odd contraption on lunch breaks and after school, scraping together the time it took to dream up and construct this sculpture in the same way they built the machine itself: in bits in pieces.
Junior Christine Artim, sophomores Stephen Peters-Collaer, Nick Marshall, Ruby Barnard-Mayers and Haley Olson, and freshmen Morgan Spooner and Caetano Hanta-Davis made up team “Rube-X,” which traveled in early December to an art, science and technology design competition at the University of Vermont.
The annual competition is hosted by the UVM College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, and challenges high school students to design, build and test a device to perform a specified task. This year, the challenge required teams to concoct a device to harness wind energy.
The MUHS team was one of two Addison County teams to compete in the UVM competition, Mount Abraham Union High School was the other. The MUHS team took first in the “kinetic sculpture” division, and students from Mount Abe placed second in the same category. The Mount Abe team also won a table display award for their presentation.
Both teams earned $700 for their inventions, which will be on display later in the year at the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center in Burlington.
Rube-X’s sculpture is narrow and thin, just under five feet tall. Because the team came together in October, they had no budget to speak of, and built the contraption from recycled materials harvested from the school, the Middlebury transfer station, and their teacher’s own backyard.
Basically, the sculpture works like this: The mayonnaise-jars-turned-windmill-blades turn when a fan or strong gust is directed at the sculpture. They’re connected to an axle — really a piece of PVC piping — that surrounds a shower curtain rod. The curtain rod is surrounded by a coil of wire. As the rod turns, the wire draws up a small metal ball from the base of the sculpture.
When the ball reaches the top of the sculpture, the fun really starts. Out shoots the metal globe from an opening in the top of the PVC tube, and then the ball begins its descent through a series of intricate little obstacles.
The team’s name, and its machine, pay homage to American inventor, sculptor and engineer Rube Goldberg. A Goldberg machine is a deliberately over-engineered contraption that performs a simple task in a complex fashion, often including a series of chain reactions.
Harrington said he was most proud of the dedication the students put into the project. The students didn’t have any class time to work on the sculpture, so most started eating their lunches in Harrington’s classroom while they designed and built the structure.
The students all look forward to participating in the competition again. Hanta-Davis said he’d like to try incorporating sound into the team’s next invention, and Artim voiced the hope that the next time around, Rube-X’s sculpture will be a bit “more artistic.”
“It really isn’t the prettiest thing,” laughed Marshall, in agreement.
Marshall also said he liked the chance to tinker with engineering as a high school student.
“It’s a lot of hands on work,” he said, adding that working with his hands was a nice change of pace from schoolwork that’s typically focused on pen-and-paper assignments.
Harrington quipped that $700 was a pretty good profit for a group that built its sculpture with odds and ends culled from the scrap heap, and now the team has a budget from which to work in the future.
“These are all strong students in the academic sense,” Harrington said. “It was fun to see what they could accomplish.”

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