Introduction: Rube Goldberg Inspired Marble Roll - 1st Grade Tinkering - Week 8

"Rube Goldberg Inspired Marble Roll" is the eighth lesson in a 10 week Tinkering series offered to first grade students. Using everyday materials in open-ended projects, we transform the ordinary to the extraordinary while nurturing problem solving skills, building creative confidence, encouraging collaboration, and empowering students as agents of their own success.

What is tinkering? Tinkering is experimenting with ideas, tools and materials to discover the myriad of possibilities that everyday objects can hold. Tinkering allows us to invent marvelous creations through working with our hands, persevering through setbacks, and engaging with others in creative collaboration. Tinkering is "thinking with our hands." Why tinkering? Thanks to smart phones, video games, and good ol' TV, too much of our kids' world is virtual and their experiences are largely vicarious. Tinkering allows for empowered, active learning. It is real interaction with real objects, real tools, and real people.

DESCRIPTION: In this lesson, students will learn about cartoonist Rube Goldberg whose clever chain-reaction inventions honored the spirit of invention. Students will use cardboard tubes and egg cartons to make marble rolls.


  • Introduce students to the work of Rube Goldberg as inspiration for tinkering
  • Explore the use cylinders and spheres (cardboard tubes and marbles) to create marble rolls.
  • Develop perseverance and creative confidence through experiential Tinkering activity
  • Encourage speaking and listening skills in group discussion

Step 1: Materials & Introduction (10 Minutes)


  • Toilet paper, paper towel and wrapping paper cardboard rolls
  • Egg cartons
  • Masking tape
  • Marbles

INTRODUCTION & DEMO (students on the rug) - 5 minutes

(Note to readers: For suggestions on guided conversations that introduce students to the idea of TINKERING, please see my Instructable "FLOWERS FROM MARS", which is week 1 of a 10-week tinkering curriculum)

Begin with the Tinkering motto call and response: "When we Tinker ... we think with our hands." and we make this gesture (Wiggle fingers at your temple and move them outward). Explain to kids to imagine that their hands are holding all their ideas and when you wiggle your fingers it's like letting the ideas come out from your brain.

Inform students that today they're going to learn about another inspiring artist, Rube Goldberg. Rube was a cartoonist who was inspired by tinkerers and inventors. He created funny drawings of "inventions" that used a chain of funny events for the desired effect. Show students the images of the two Rube Goldberg comic drawings and walk them through each step of the gag.

Share with students that artists, tinkerers and inventors today continue to be inspired by Rube Goldberg. Numerous videos can be found on YouTube to share - one great one is OK GO's music video for their song, "This too Shall Pass."

After viewing the video, as students what shapes they saw most often in the video. Students will notice spheres that roll to create many of the steps in the chain reaction. Also point out the students that the musicians in the video start at the beginning with paint already on their jackets, which shows us that they had to try times before they made it work (just like we do in tinkering!)

Share with student that they will be making their own Rube Goldberg Inspired Marble Rolls

Introduce TOOLS and MATERIALS:

MATERIALS - The main material we are using are cardboard tubes (cylinders) and marbles (spheres) and egg cartons to create height.

TOOLS - Remember that are things we use to help us make, build and create. Today's tools are scissors and masking tape.

Step 2: Demonstration (5 Minutes)

Demonstrate to students that to make an effective marble roll, the marble will need to roll "downhill" which means that it will need to start higher so it can roll lower. The egg cartons can help to add height. Encourage students to use desks, chairs, and the floors to create height for the marbles to roll down through the tubes.

Remind them of the rules: There is no "WRONG" in Tinkering, but there are a few rules:

1 - RESPECT the Materials and Tools - Use tools properly, be mindful to use materials wisely, not wastefully.

2 - RESPECT your classmates - share materials, share tools. Be encouraging! Work together!

3- RESPECT yourself - always try your hardest. It's OK to feel frustrated, but keep working and keep trying. Be PROUD of what you do.

Step 3: Tinkering TIme (25 Minutes)

Encourage students to "fail early, and fail often." They should test their marble rolls frequently and as re-adjustments are needed to make changes to make the marbles rolls as they intend.
Encourage students to add their marble rolls together to make even larger rolls. After several weeks of tinkering, you will likely find students very interested in working together!

Step 4: Clean Up & Reflection (10 Minutes)

Clean Up:

Cleaning up after ourselves is an important part of Tinkering. Students should return unused materials to their proper containers and check under the desks for materials that may have fallen.

Reflection Time:

Reflection time can include student demonstrations / testings of their marble rolls. Inquire if anyone struggled with their marbles rolling as they wished and if they thought about the guys in the video who had plenty of paint on their jackets! Remind students that trial and error, and bouncing back from failure is an important part of tinkering.

End with the phrase & gesture. "When we tinker, we think with our hands."

Step 5: Some Other Thoughts for Those Who Haven't Seen the Previous Week's Tinerking for 1st Grade Lesson Plans on Instructables


Invariably, students will want to take what they create home to show their parents. They're proud of what they've created, and that's a good thing. The one draw back to allowing students to take home what they make is that when students have worked together on an creation, the question arises as to WHO gets to take it home. Or even worse, children are disinclined to collaborate because they want to take their individual creation home.

At our school, we resolved this issue with a policy we share with the students from the start, which is that what we make in Tinkering class, stays in the classroom to be used as inspiration for others. We hold Tinkering class Thursdays, and each 1st grade teacher has a "Tinkering Station" set up for their free choice time on Friday afternoons. The same materials and tools from the day before are made available, and students are invited to be self-directed in further tinkering lessons. For Friday free choice, we have a "make it and take it" policy. What you create with Tinkering materials and tools on Friday, they may take home.

Goals & Perspectives on 1st Grade Tinkering Program:

Open-Ended Challenges: There is no "right" way to do it, no step-by-step instructions. Challenges are designed for success in a variety of ways and allow students to investigate and succeed on their own terms.

Collaborative in nature: All tinkering challenges are group projects where individual work could join together with classmates' to create something new. Students build together, fostering a sense of being part of something larger than themselves.

Materials are ordinary objects, recycled whenever possible: Challenges envision ways to use familiar objects in unfamiliar ways. Toilet paper rolls, milk cartons, paper goods; the materials are all things that kids have at home, so they can continue tinkering.

Embracing failures, managing frustrations and persevering: "Nothing is a mistake. There's no win and no fail. There's only MAKE." Getting stuck is celebrated as students are encouraged to see sticky points as opportunities to learn.

Revisit & iterate with "free-choice" tinkering station: Materials from each week's challenge are made available at a "Tinkering Station" at free choice time, allowing students to explore further and be self-directed in their learning.

Empathy & Storytelling: Opportunities for speaking and listening are included as part of reflection time. Students share stories of what they've created and offer appreciations for classmates and the skills and abilities they bring to the group.

Enhancing design sensibilities: Challenges value the form of the object as much as its function. Challenges are designed to be aesthetically pleasing and enliven imaginations.

Respect for materials and tools: Tools and materials are the vehicles for our creativity and expression. Tools are used properly and although we may sometimes make a mess when tinkering, we always clean up after ourselves.

Creative confidence: Empowering children to see themselves as Makers and creators Problem solving, curiosity, inquiry: Challenges are designed to encourage an understanding of materials and their properties and how to manipulate them to create something new. Students are encouraged to stretch and explore, discovering what else they can create.

FUN! The serious work of PLAY. Einstein said, "Play is the highest form of research."