For Labor Day this year, we here at Vacaville’s Imagine That thought it would be fun to explore the scientific meaning of work and how simple machines help get work done. In physics, work happens when an effort or force is used to move a mass over a distance. So holding a heavy object might feel like a lot of work, but unless you move the object, no work is done.

We thought we would have some fun with that by using some simple machines to do a little work. We had a simple machine scavenger hunt all week, and we looked at how we could combine those simple machines to create a Rube Goldberg machine. Anyone who visited was welcome to join or watch as we built the Rube Goldberg machine. The simple goal was to knock over a bowling pin. Some people built a path for a bowling ball to roll. We experimented with a pulley to drop the bowling ball, but it was difficult to find the right placement and counterweight. Instead, the bucket for the pulley was placed on an edge to swing as a pendulum to hit the bowling ball down a inclined plane and into the path. Another ball was knocked off the table by some dominoes to set the pendulum swinging. The dominoes were started by a marble rolled through the inclined planes of a marble track. But we had to hit the right place on the dominoes, so there was quite a bit of experimenting.

Try your own Rube Goldberg machine at home for some fun. See if you can find and name the simple machines you use to complete your own simple task. We used levers, inclined planes and tried to use pulleys. Can you find a way to get screws, wedges, or wheels in yours?