Contraption contest breeds creativity

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Chris Hunt’s success all hinged on a kung fu hamster.

If the hamster prevented a marble from rolling down a bright yellow ramp, Hunt’s Rube Goldberg machine would have been a failure. When the marble rolled through the hamster and set off a series of levers to water a plant, Hunt became the champion of Theta Tau’s Rube Goldberg Machine Contest.

The honors fraternity hosts the contest every year as a part of National Engineers Week, and the first-place team earns a place in the national competition at Purdue University.

To compete, a team or individual must create a machine that completes a simple task in no less than 20 steps. This year’s task was to water a plant, which was accomplished with domino lines, catapults, pulleys, ramps and motors. The machines are named after the cartoonist and inventor Rube Goldberg.

Hunt, an electrical engineering junior, claimed first place after completing two of the three rounds without error. Out of the three chances each team’s machine had to successfully complete the task, Chris only had to help his marble along once, a feat one judge said he had never seen before.

“The first round, it messed up, which was frustrating because the part that went wrong hadn’t ever gone wrong before,” Hunt said. “So when it did finally work, it felt really great. But I was holding my breath the whole time.”

The Society of Women Engineers opened the competition with their “Make it Rain” forest. Their collection of jungle animals, palm trees and a waterfall earned the team second place and got the crowd involved early.

“When the rain stick falls, you’re welcome to dance,” said co-team captain Lauren Collins, a senior in biomedical engineering. “We love it when people dance.”

But before dancing could begin, the team had to start from scratch. They spent four months and hundreds of hours working on the machine, said team member Kaitlyn Hunt, a mechanical engineering senior.

“We began with the theme because every machine has a theme,” she said. “Then we started brainstorming steps that would fit within that theme.”

The process involved finding a balance between whimsy and practicality.

These creative touches caught the attention of Lydia Contreras-Martin, an assistant chemical engineering professor.

“My favorite thing was how the mechanics of the machine fit into the theme, like the monkey falling off the tree setting off the rain stick,” she said.