Balloon Poppers

Popinator6000 350For years when I taught 7th grade science at Hanes Middle School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, I sponsored an introductory physics building project that I called “Balloon Poppers.” Having studied simple machines and Newton’s Laws of Motion, students were charged with putting together a vertical board that would feature a Rube Goldberg set of ramps, levers, pinwheels, pulleys,  wedges, and screws that would guide a marble or ball bearing from the top of their board to the bottom and somewhere along the way pop at least one balloon.

Over the years of running this project students became more and more creative with their contraptions. Special bonuses were given if they could figure out how to include gears, a parachute launch, music, pop out signs, or — some new invention that I had never seen before.BonusChallenges-2
Working in teams of two, students created these marvels of motion at home, testing and practicing with their creation until the appointed day when all of the projects were brought to school and we began the “performances.”

At the end of each project’s run we all applauded and congratulated the builders while machines were counted and points were tallied. For several years I videotaped groups as they presented and ran their Balloon Popper projects.

In 2015, as a sixth grade science teacher in California, I decided to bring back the Balloon Popper idea as a special art class challenge. I built four boards and began collecting supplies for the student groups to use in developing their Rube Goldberg-style “Balloon Popper.”  One of the groups bailed out and lost MasterOfDisaster 350interest in the project, and so I jumped in and worked on the board myself.  For the first time I was faced with design challenges just like the kids! And yes, I struggled! I would go for walks and spend the entire time thinking about how to connect this or that piece and make the sequence work the way that I wanted it to. I learned very quickly that dreaming up a project for students is quite a different animal than actually DOING the project yourself!

In the end I completed my board and helped the remaining three groups of students complete theirs and we put them on display at the spring art show. With all of the balloons that we popped in demonstrating how the boards worked, our display at the art show was very popular!

I’ve included links on this web page to my old Balloon Popper directions, and to a YouTube playlist of videos I took of student projects in 2007. At the bottom of this post I have included a video of my favorite Rube Goldberg design by the band OK Go entitled, “This Too Shall Pass.”

Tom Clauset

Former science teacher (6th, 7th, & 8th grades from 1990 to 2016). After June, 2016 –> Retired tinkerer, adventurer, bicycler, hiker, grandparent, workshop putterer, tree house builder, guitar plunker, dog walker, news junkie, science fiction reader, Netflix watcher, National Park visitor, camper, and world traveler.

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Float-Your-Boat Challenge

BoatRacesLogoThe bottle boat project was one that I started at Chadwick School in Palos Verdes Peninsula, CA when I was a 6th grade science teacher there from 2010-2016. After studying a good deal about Earth Science, including plate tectonics, Pangaea, earthquakes, etc., we launched into an extensive study of density and buoyancy. The boat race was a culminating activity to all of our density studies and labs.

I decided that if I was going to ask students to build a boat out of recycled plastic bottles, I should attempt to build one myself first to see how much trouble it would be. My design was intended to look like a “canoe” that would carry three students. I used small diameter PVC pipe as the frame and then used giant zip ties to “lash” the long sausage-shapes of bottles to the frame. Smaug-2My first bottle boat attempt did not have a dragon head or a tail or Viking shields along the sides. Although I did not realize it at the time, it also did not have enough flotation. To the great enjoyment of the onlookers that first year at the Chadwick pool boat races, the boat capsized and sat for a while in the water upside down! For the 2nd year’s boat race I added more plastic bottles for flotation and attached a dragon head made out of 1/4″ plywood to the front. The third year a dragon tail was added followed a year later by Viking shields along both sides. “Canoe” paddles were made by bolting 1/4″ plywood blades to PVC pipes with a “T” connection at the top for a hand grip.

Side Shield-1     Before Chadwick’s “Open House” in May and the boat races in the school pool in June, students collected data on their boats by weighing their boat and calculating its density. They were required to keep track of the number and volume of plastic bottles that they used on their boats. They then calculated the total volume of all of the bottles they used. With density determined by dividing the mass of the boat along with the weights of the students on board by the total volume in the plastic bottles, they were able to calculate the density of their boat and determine if the boat had enough flotation to carry its crew.Bottle Boat statistics

Each year students documented the project by taking pictures of the building process — and, of the builders. Many student teams created videos as well to illustrate the work they put into their boat and the success of their boat during “sea trials” in a local pool. We used “Google Sites” to create a web site that would feature all of the boats over a three-year span. Each student team had a web page within the site to showcase their efforts.

At the bottom of this post below the Boat Race Video is a link to the class “Float-Your-Boat” website. There you will find three years worth of students’ boat-building efforts which include photographs of each team’s boat, the building process, data collected on the boats, and videos of the boats during “sea trials.”

Here is a LINK to the class “Float-Your-Boat” website.

Tom Clauset

Former science teacher (6th, 7th, & 8th grades from 1990 to 2016). After June, 2016 –> Retired tinkerer, adventurer, bicycler, hiker, grandparent, workshop putterer, tree house builder, guitar plunker, dog walker, news junkie, science fiction reader, Netflix watcher, National Park visitor, camper, and world traveler.

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