Wacky things are happening in the "Rube Room" at Wantagh High School.
Student teams are scheming to construct overly complicated, chain-reaction contraptions to accomplish a simple task: zipping a zipper. On Saturday, they'll take their creations to the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City to compete against other high school teams in the fourth annual Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, which is open to spectators.
Goldberg was a cartoonist who illustrated the kinds of comical and outlandish contraptions the 12 registered entrants are now building in real life. The kids are using household objects such as fans, a frying pan, an old-fashioned record turntable, golf balls and even a Zhu-Zhu pet to transfer energy through at least 20 steps until they finally make the zip. The winning team will qualify to travel to the national competition in Wisconsin in March.
"I really like when the rocks come tumbling down and the people fall over," says team member Chris Mountanos, 15, a sophomore. "We have to coordinate it so that each one falls exactly where it's supposed to be."
Team to beat
Wantagh is the school to beat, as one of its entries has taken top prize every year since the contest began. Wantagh usually fields several entries from the almost 50 students participating in the extracurricular club.
But they'll have new contenders this year -- Malverne High School, for instance, is entering the field for the first time. Duo John O'Reilly and Sean Blodgett, both 17 and from Lynbrook, plan to use weights and pulleys and are even trying to get the vibrations of a stereo speaker to move a marble along part of the path. "We're just trying to make it as crazy as we can," Blodgett says.
The boys are calling on their knowledge of physics and engineering to help them. "We had to do some calculation to see if some steps would work," O'Reilly says. Their science teacher and adviser, Shannon Kelly, had to nix a couple of their ideas that included minor, controlled explosions using the students' knowledge of chemistry. "We were concerned about keeping the explosivity to a minimum," Kelly jokes.
The kids are working with shoestring budgets, and have to meet design specifications. For instance, the entire contraption must be less than 6 feet tall, and it is limited to 6 feet wide in any direction -- picture the size of two public bathroom stalls.
Teams are judged on the complexity of the machine, a verbal presentation and how well the machine completes the task. "They really have to get into the wackiness of it. There's a showmanship element," says Rick Angler, academic coordinator for the Cradle of Aviation.
At Wantagh, each group has a $200 budget and a theme -- Mountanos' group, for instance, has chosen the "End of the World." Hence the rocks that tumble. Other steps of the reaction include triggering a fan that pulls a string, which spins an old-fashioned turntable decorated like a tornado. Another Wantagh team chose a camping theme, and their final step will be zippering a tent.
The first year of competition was hardest, says Wantagh senior Alyssa Kelly, 17, who has been on the team since her freshman year. That goal was to water a plant. "We had no idea about the power tools," Kelly says. "We've made a lot of progress."
Year two, the goal was to inflate a balloon, year three, hammer a nail. And this year, the zipper. "I like the problem solving," says Grace Sullivan, a 14-year-old Wantagh freshman. "And figuring out how all the steps work together."
WHEN|WHERE Teams compete between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturday at the Cradle of Aviation Museum, Charles Lindbergh Blvd., Garden City