I am an inventor lesson

Years 5 and 6

Students are inspired by the life, work and times of Rube Goldberg to learn about simple machines and design and create a Rube Goldberg machine to complete a simple task.

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    Lesson Plan

    I am an inventor

    Years 5 and 6

Learning hook

As a class, watch this clip of Jennifer George (Rube Goldberg's granddaughter) reading parts of her book Rube Goldberg’s Simple, Normal, Humdrum School Day, or read the book aloud to students.

Explain that the machines in the book are examples of Rube Goldberg machines. As a class, develop a definition for this type of machine.

Ask students if they can think of any films that feature Rube Goldberg machines. Examples may include Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or Casper.

As a class, watch a few short videos of simple Rube Goldberg machines in action – examples are provided in the Resources section below. Students can also explore the setup of the Mousetrap boardgame.

Learning input

Read the book Just Like Rube Goldberg: The Incredible True Story of the Man Behind the Machines written by Sarah Aronson and illustrated by Robert Neubecker to students or watch/listen to it on YouTube here.

As a class, discuss:

  • What was special about Rube as a child? Did he enjoy being an engineer? How did his love of drawing and engineering lead to his employment with the newspapers?
  • Why is Rube Goldberg in the dictionary?
  • What makes an inventor? Are there special characteristics an inventor needs?
  • Rube Goldberg is considered an inventor. How has he contributed to society?

Ask students to think about a machine that has changed how we live our lives. Once they have identified one, ask them to find out who invented it, and when.

Just Like Rube Goldberg The Incredible True Story of the Man Behind the Machines.

Learning construction

Support students to look closely at the simple machines used by Rube Goldberg: pulley, lever, inclined plane, screw, wedge, and wheel and axle. Explain that these simple machines help us complete a task more easily. With the students, try to identify each simple machine in one of the illustrations from the book.

Challenge students to look at their school or house and see how many simple machines they can see in action.

In the classroom, set up different challenges for the students to explore in small groups.

  1. Make a pulley to lift a bag of marbles onto a table.
  2. Use a lever to lift objects; adjust the position of the fulcrum and observe the impact.
  3. Create a ramp (inclined plane) to pull up an object and use a spring scale to measure the force required. Try different angles and observe which angle uses less force.
  4. Slide a box across the floor. Then place the box on a toy car, which includes wheels and axles. Which moves most easily?
  5. Experiment with an Archimedes screw. (Watch this video on making an Archimedes screw to make one for students). Does the angle of the screw matter? How can screws help us lift things?
  6. Use differently shaped blocks (for example, cylinder, rectangular prism, triangular prism (wedge) to split a lump of playdough. Observe which block is most effective. Can students explain why?

How to Make an Archimedes Screw

After completing all the activities, ask students to reflect and describe how each simple machine makes work easier. Share ideas as a class and identify the role each simple machine could play in a Rube Goldberg machine. An example is provided below.

Simple machine

Role in a Rube Goldberg machine


Makes it easier to force things apart.

Wheel and axle

Reduces friction and makes movement easier.


Moves around a fulcrum to make it easier to move things.

Inclined plane

Makes it easier to raise objects by moving up a slope.


Makes it easier to lift things up an inclined plane.


Changes the direction of a force.


Challenge students to work in small groups to design their own Rube Goldberg machine. They will need to sketch their idea and then build it and demonstrate it for the class.

Rube Goldberg machines are complex! To make the task manageable, follow these steps.

  1. Allocate each group of students a goal, such as dropping a ball into a cup, popping a balloon or pouring water into a container.
  2. Provide a set size for the machine, such as the surface of one or two desks.
  3. Use a cardboard base to build on, so the projects can be moved around.
  4. Show students the materials you will provide and explain that if they need other materials they will have to source them themselves.
  5. Ask students to plan their project before they start to build, starting with the very last step and working backwards.
  6. Ask students to bring their final sketches for approval before they start building to ensure they have an actionable plan.

Once students have built their machines, they can film it in action, then annotate the film or provide a voiceover to identify the simple machines they’ve used.

Further learning

Students can further explore Rube Goldberg’s work as a cartoonist.

Ask students, what is a cartoon? Explain that people of all ages and backgrounds often enjoy some form of cartoons. As a group, identify different types of cartoons and discuss the skills cartoonists need.

As a class, look closely at some Rube Goldberg cartoons. Have students consider how these are different to other cartoons and draw attention to the labelling in Rube Goldberg’s cartoons.

Now have students create their own cartoon of a Rube Goldberg machine. They should think of a simple task to complete, and then, working backwards, create simple chain reactions to make an interesting, zany and fun way to complete the first simple action. Explain that they are not limited by materials or space, only their imaginations!

They should label their cartoon so the processes in their Rube Goldberg machine are clear. They can also label the simple machines they’ve used.

Showcase students’ cartoons in the classroom or virtually. For videos to support students’ cartooning, see the Resources section below.