Rube Goldberg’s real lesson

My recent column from the October issue of PRiSM, the magazine of the American Society for Engineering Education. 

Trained as an engineer at Berkeley at the dawn of the 20th century, Rube Goldberg had exactly the kind of prolific, influential, and wide-ranging career we need from 21st-century engineers. Yes, he worked as an engineer and inventor, but he also was an artist, author, cartoonist, and critic. The Smithsonian Institution displayed his sculptures. He won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for commentary on the dangers of atomic weapons. Yet to most people, the name Rube Goldberg summons up images of elaborate contraptions that use ramps, levers, pulleys, balls, and other moving parts to perform a single simple task, like automate a “self-operating napkin” or let the cat outside. Goldberg’s whimsical machines are the enduring part of his legacy.

rube

Convoluted overdesigns permeate engineering education. Designing and building a “Rube Goldberg-like device,” for example, is one of the tasks in the Science Olympiad, a prominent competition for middle and high school students. In comparable college-level contests, teams devote hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of time to build just one such apparatus. (The documentary Mousetrap to Mars is an entertaining look at this culture.) While other engineering student competitions, from ASCE’s concrete canoe races and other mainstays to newcomers like the robot football game featured at ASEE’s 2013 annual conference, don’t invoke Goldberg’s name, they celebrate the use of complex means to achieve simple tasks.

We need engineers to do the exact opposite: find the simplest solutions to complex problems. This has always been the case, but the imperative grows ever more obvious in the face of tightening budgets and dwindling resources such as energy and water.

Designing with unnecessary complexity can at times be a useful and engaging academic exercise. However, contests that are trivial make engineers seem the same. Worse, we risk appearing insensitive to societal issues. Engineering skills are precious resources, ones that many communities lack. Squandering these assets is as wasteful as filling up your car just to drive around in circles.

Football-playing robots and concrete canoes are, like automatic napkins, examples of doing something just because we can. As students would say (or tweet), these are responses to “#firstworldproblems.” At best, the end use for such projects is on display in some engineering building’s lobby — a constant reminder for would-be engineers that one day, if they survive the math and science, they too will be able to design and build frivolous contraptions.

Let’s stop wasting these engineering resources. Instead, we can support programs that provide students with opportunities to solve real problems and help those who lack access to engineering design. We can learn from inspiring bright spots like MIT’s D-lab, the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Engineering for Developing Communities, Clemson’s Engineers for Developing Countries, and Penn State’s Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship Program. Instead of static monuments or trophies in engineering buildings, the most successful projects from these programs actually help human beings.

Remember, Rube Goldberg was a satirist. He was being ironic with his drawings of complicated machines. His illustrations were a response to patent filings for automatic hat tippers and shoe polishers. They were a commentary on trade-offs between the benefits of technology and dependency on machines, and showed the disparity between the few who could afford the new technology and everyone else. Goldberg’s machines represent a timeless lesson, but are engineering educators teaching it — or the exact opposite?