On campus beat: St. Olaf's creativity beats the engineers

  • Article by: Jenna Ross
  • Star Tribune
  • April 4, 2012 - 7:09 PM

The clock counted down, the volcano spewed, the balloon exploded into a puff of smoke.

St. Olaf College won the national Rube Goldberg Machine Contest with a contraption that performed a total of 191 flicks, triggers, pushes and pulls -- and without a single nudging along. A flawless run.

Team members had been feeling confident before last weekend's competition, a test of physics wrapped into complicated machinery designed to perform simple tasks.

"We had a lot of good runs," said Anne Jacobson, a junior and "re-setter." "And the ones that weren't perfect, we were able to fix right away."

But the team got nervous when Purdue University showed up with their "monster of a machine," said Jason Engbrecht, associate professor of physics. Rules restrict the machines to a 6-by-6-foot space, "but I swear their machine seemed like it was 15 feet by 15 feet," he said.

Engbrecht reminded the team that "it's very easy to put lots of steps on a machine, but it's hard to make those steps work well."

In the end, St. Olaf's machine was more reliable. One newspaper that covered St. Olaf's win noted that "unlike the seven other teams taking part today, the college does not have an engineering program."

Jacobson suspects that was an advantage, actually. Because she and her teammates aren't in strict engineering programs, that "allowed us not to be narrow-minded and be more creative," said Jacobson, a physics and mathematics major.

"Sometimes people have the perspective that our students are only good at music and reading Chaucer," Engbrecht said. "But we train many, many students to go onto many, many technical fields."

Jacobson started college as a physics and music major -- a popular combination among her teammates. They decided to incorporate that talent into the competition. One student played a score on piano, which included a bit of the "Jaws" theme and the "Um! Yah! Yah!" school song.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

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