Building a funner mousetrap

Middle school science champs solve problems with style

Half of this hotel room looks like the inside of a Home Depot after the store has been lifted, shaken really hard, and set back down. The other half of the room, where a group of five middle-schoolers silently cluster, holds the results of their afternoon’s work — an elaborate, giant Rube Goldberg–style mousetrap.

Strands of dominoes feature prominently in the design, of course, but so does the box that used to hold the dominoes, magnets, wood blocks, taped rulers, Bunsen burner stands, wire and duct tape. The contraption spans the entire room, starting on the far end with a huge slide that resembled a ski jump, and ending with a small car poised at the top of a ramp, ready to cruise down into a bull’s-eye target.

Yells, laughter and excited, fast talking had filled the room moments earlier, but now everyone was quiet. All eyes were on the kid with the marble. He walks up, takes a breath and lets ’er rip. The marble does its job, takes down some dominoes, but then the momentum abruptly stops. A structural problem grinds the giant system to a halt.

Silence is replaced with the loud dramatic groans—the kind that only middle-schoolers are really good at. But the damage isn’t permanent. After a few minutes of lamenting, the team is back to assessing and tinkering, trying to troubleshoot the problem.

These students are finalists in the second annual Broadcom Math, Applied Science, Technology and Engineering for Rising Stars, or MASTERS, program, a national science competition sponsored by the Broadcom Foundation and run by Society for Science and the Public, the publisher of Science News. Along with 25 other finalists, these kids have spent the last few days presenting their science projects to the public, seeing the sights of Washington, D.C., and participating in team science challenges, such as constructing a model home that can withstand hurricane-force winds, analyzing biofuel sources and building this mousetrap—specified to have no fewer than five energy transfers.

Today’s batch of challenges, designed by the Jason Project, re-creates the actual messy business of doing science. There are no clean answers and nothing to memorize. Instead, as the finalists rotate through the projects, they improvise, rely on their teammates and figure things out for themselves — all skills in a good scientist’s repertoire.

After the disappointing finish, the finalists crowd around a laptop to watch a music video featuring a bigger, longer Rube Goldberg machine. In the midst of ooing and aahing, one young participant yells out, “Count the energy transfers, guys!”

Laura Sanders

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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