Camper brings real-world experience to the challenges of STEAM Labs

By Erika Solberg

Not too long ago, W.P. Hurt of Edmonton was building a wheelchair ramp with his mother to help out a family in need. This week at VAMPY, a ramp is one of the structures that he will be using in STEAM Labs as he constructs chain reaction machines and learns about the engineering design process. Like many VAMPY campers, W.P. will be bringing real-life experience and interests into the classroom.

W.P. chose STEAM Labs as his class because he likes Rube Goldberg machines, especially ones that he has seen in movies like “The Goonies.” In this course, students will work together in small teams to construct machines that run on Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM) concepts using everyday objects and technology such as motors, sensors, and micro-controllers. The STEAM machines are also referred to as Rube Goldberg© machines after the cartoonist — and holder of a degree in engineering — who drew pictures of machines that completed simple tasks in complicated ways.

STEAM Labs utilizes the engineering model that incorporates thinking and rethinking, and trying and trying again. The ramp that W.P. and his mother built through ER Ministries has already given him a taste of this process. “We couldn’t put it out front because there was the road, and we couldn’t put it to the side because there was a dog pen, so we had to make a 3-4-5 triangle at the porch, and then we did the ramp gradually sloping down right to the car’s driveway,” he explained. The project took a week.

W.P. will be sharing other important skills with his classmates. First, he has hands-on knowledge of the importance of machines because he uses them all the time on his family’s farm, where he throws hay, feeds and waters the livestock, rides horses, and drives tractors. He will also be making use of the abstract thinking skills and creativity he’s acquired through years of reading. “It’s a feat to keep enough books in stock for him to read,” said his mom, Heather Hurt.

As a camper doing the five week challenge of back-to-back SCATS and VAMPY camps, his enthusiasm for learning is obvious. “SCATS was really fun, so why not do VAMPY and SCATS because that would be a whole bunch more fun,” he said.

W.P. Hurt of Edmonton writes a program for a Lego robot during STEAM Labs Wednesday, June 28. (Photo by Sam Oldenburg)
W.P. Hurt of Edmonton writes a program for a Lego robot during STEAM Labs Wednesday, June 28. (Photo by Sam Oldenburg)

The first afternoon of class this week, W.P. was hard at work with teammates Cole LaDow of LaGrange and Chase Whitman of Leitchfield on the first class challenge. They needed to build a machine that, among other requirements, incorporated six to eight steps; used a pulley, dominoes, a ball, and a ramp or tunnel; and ended with a wad of paper being tossed into a trash can.

Teacher Madison Moore and teaching assistant Jessica Smith-Harper had stocked the room full of materials to inspire their students, including a video game guitar, Slinkys, pencils, PVC piping, clothes hangers, a build-your-own-robot kit, battery chargers, a small plastic propeller, a sieve, funnels, saws, clamps, levels, and a power sander.

After planning and drawing their machine’s design, W.P. and his teammates got to work. W.P. sawed a block of wood to use as the base for the pulley system, then consulted with Cole and Chase on whether or not to change their design. He and Cole experimented to see if a pulley design would work, giving each other good-natured grief. He then helped Chase figure out how to get two boards to stay nailed together. When his team was stuck on a design feature, W.P. came up with a possible solution. “I have great ideas, child, great ideas,” he told them with a laugh.

On Tuesday morning, W.P., Cole, and Chase worked on the final touches to their Rube Goldberg. The machine would begin with a small metal ball being dropped into a paper cup strung from a pulley. The cup would then drop so it tripped a mousetrap which would set off a long s-curve of dominoes that would fall until the last one knocked a second ball down a chute. At the bottom, the ball would knock away a clothespin holding a stretched rubber band which would release to launch a wad of paper into a trash can.

Madison Moore stood at their table to time her students’ machine to see if it lasted the minimum 15 seconds. An initial attempt failed when the string came off the pulley wheel, but W.P. quickly reset it. The second time, the dominoes stopped falling halfway through. On a third attempt, the dominoes stopped falling again, this time only three away from the end.

“Why didn’t it hit?” Madison asked.

“The corner’s way too tight,” Cole replied.

“They’re so closely packed that they don’t have room to fall,” W.P. added.

Cole suggested the team set some of the dominoes on their ends instead of on their sides, and the three boys got to work. W.P. shimmed the base of the pulley, Chase placed dominoes, and Cole reset the rubber band. “I love the teamwork I’m seeing,” Madison commented.

The boys suffered through a few more failed attempts as well as some unplanned domino falls, but just before lunch they tried once more. This time, the cup dropped, the mousetrap snapped, all the dominoes fell, the ball rolled, the clothespin flew off, and the rubber band launched the wad of paper into the trash can.

“It works!” W.P. yelled.

“Now reset,” Madison replied, “and see if you can make it last longer.”