Two years ago, Julia Harth turned tech ed at H.B. Whitehorne Middle School on its ear. Instead of having students make small popsicle-stick catapults, she turned them loose to build machines almost as tall as they were that could hurl pumpkins across the school field. She had them build musical instruments out of recycled materials, and a machine to open an umbrella in 10 contorted steps. Her latest innovation is the icing on the cake to all this–literally.
On Thursday, eighth-grade students showed off a Rube Goldberg-inspired cake-icing machine to the master of all cake icing, Cake Boss‘ Buddy Valastro. Harth and the 15 students in her robotics class wanted to create a machine to show younger students the possibilities of HBW’s science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) cycle classes. “We reached out to Cake Boss about this event we were having and and asked if they were interested,” Harth says. When the reality TV show accepted, the HBW team had just about two weeks to make their concept a reality.
Working during the school day and after school, the students applied the serious stuff they had learned in their robotics class–how to make remote-controlled and autonomous robots–to the general silliness of a Rube Goldberg machine. Goldberg was a 20th-century cartoonist and inventor who delighted in sketching out improbable ways of doing simple tasks. Where icing a cake the usual way might only involve a bowl, a whisk and a few ingredients, the HBW machine had 32 steps including plastic cupcakes falling onto levers, marbles flowing through a maze into a breadbox, a ball that spins a set of spoons and an oven mitt that fires a frosting gun.
“In the cycle class, the kids learn about mechanics and structural engineering,” Harth says. “Rube Goldberg machines are a funny way of looking at these concepts. You would never want a real machine to be this complex.”
There were robotics behind the conveyor belt in one of the early steps, as well as in the arm that pushed marbles down into a tube. When something didn’t go as planned, the students had to trouble shoot their work, find the flaws in their design and fix them. “It is intense and they get very frustrated,” says Harth, “but they get so excited when it works.” The students on the design team were Ava Capriglione, Tyler Coppola, Meghan Gallagher, Nick Jacobsen, Jack McHugh, Brodie Neale, Joey Petro, PJ Shaw, Sabrina Thompson, Michael Andolino, Ashley Duhaney, Ethan Randall, Tanner Reed, Mikey Vaccaro and Chris Zysk.
Valastro, who is the owner of the Hoboken-based Carlo’s Bakery empire, praised the students for their inventiveness. “Anything is possible in this world if you apply your mind, your time, your heart, your will to it,” he said. “This is a really awesome project and you guys have to be really proud of what you did.” Valastro watched as the students showed off their machine, and then gave them a glimpse of his own Rube Goldberg concept. We can’t say a word about that because it, and the work of the HBW students, will be part of an upcoming Cake Boss episode.
While all of HBW’s students are waiting for the show to air, they have some serious work to do. Some will be analyzing the flaws of the icing machine and figuring out how to make it work more smoothly. Some will be participating in the Future City competition at Rutgers University in January, and others must get started on their entries for this year’s Rube Goldberg Machine competition, which will be to design a machine to pour cereal. “We’re actually looking at traveling to the competition this year,” says Harth.
It sounded as if Valastro will be cheering them on to the contest–and beyond. “You guys are at a perfect age,” he said. “You’re going to be finishing school and going into the workforce and it’s projects like this that make you know that with what you love, what you dream and what you put your heart into, anything in the world is possible. We need you guys to dream big because you are the future.”