Shared by Alexa Hurd, Wildlands School

I’m excited that you’ve chosen to develop an EMDC team! I am a teacher at Wildlands School, a project-based program in Fall Creek, Wisconsin.  I have a math/science background but get to teach all the subjects at Wildlands with the same group of 7th & 8th graders all day, each day.  

We have the space to incorporate the Engineering Machine Design Contest into our school day so all of our middle schoolers (~22 kids) have participated in the contest for the last 2 years.  They LOVE it. I haven’t stopped hearing “When do we get to start the engineering project?” since September. 

We typically start in January and take time out of most school days to work on designing, constructing, and tweaking their machines.  The 7th & 8th graders work together in groups of 3-5 so that everyone has the best chance at sharing the workload and having their creativity heard and honored.

Here are a few brief and random reflections that may be helpful off the bat:

While this project can lead to quite sophisticated design elements, I’ve seen cardboard and hot glue make dreams come true much as wood and screws! 

My job as a teacher/coach has primarily included:

  • Mediating group dynamics. There are so many ideas tossed around that it can be hard for some kids to feel seen and heard if another student’s idea is “chosen”. I’m sure you have experienced this in LEGO league and FTC, or other projects as well.
  • Offering reminders about what is required so they are “on track” and helping with pacing as we get closer to the competition (including 10-15 steps, helping define what a “step” is, keeping a detailed journal, tweaking their designs as they test them and find they’re not as reliable as we’d like, prepping their presentation for the competition).
  • Providing recycled materials from my life to add to the “bin” of options (if you present them with a water balloon or a door hinge, they’ll more than likely find fun ways to incorporate them).
  • Introducing them to tools and providing opportunities to see how different materials work can be helpful (lots of 3D printing, every middle schooler knows how to use a drill by the time we finish the engineering project, one group used an old Vernier motion sensor to add a graphing visual for a rolling ball in their project a few years ago).
  • Offering guidance through the testing/redesigning process so they build a bigger idea of what kinds of things they can tweak rather than deciding something just “doesn’t work”.

It’s helpful and FUN to tinker. Play around with the materials you happen to gather (there’s a huge emphasis on using recycled materials) and see how they can interact with each other in ways you’d never expect.

At the championships, I’ve met teams who designed their machine for MONTHS before trying things out with materials, and I’ve met teams who began to tinker and made plans as they went — BOTH approaches can be successful!

Other helpful tips:

  • Videos of Rube Goldberg machines can be inspiring. They’re a great tool!
  • Attaching casters to the base of your machine is IMMENSELY helpful for storing/transporting.
  • Make sure you have a plan early for how to fit through doorways that are smaller than the 5′ x 5′ x 5′ size parameter. (That’s a necessity for exiting our building and entering the gym for our local competition.)
  • It’s helpful to have a toolkit of random supplies at the competition (drills, screws, tapes, spare balls of different varieties, string, etc.) in case things need adjustments after transport.
  • Reliable steps are KEY. If they can recreate the same kind of motion reliably, it allows them to test again and again to maximize. 🙂