Thursday, February 9, 2012

Machine Brains by 3rd Grade

This is an example of the artist statement I have my students do after each project.
This one is unusually long due the fact that I have each student write an explanation
for how their machines work. It goes along with the image above it. 
This project is probably one of my favorites among everything I teach. Part of the third grade science curriculum involves the study of simple machines. I take that idea and make it way more rad than a science textbook.

I start by introducing Rube Goldberg with a Keynote presentation. I'll put a link to that presentation at the bottom by the lesson plan link. For those of you who may not be familiar with Rube Goldberg, he was a cartoonist who had also been trained as an engineer. He was famous for creating drawings of complicated machines that did really simple tasks. My students absolutely love looking at these machines. 

We then talk about the six different kinds of simple machines (inclined plane, wheel & axel, wedge, pulley, screw, lever) and look at examples of each. The best part of the presentation comes next when I show videos that people have posted on YouTube of Rube Goldberg style machines that they have made at home. The best example is a music video by OK GO. Check it out-->

Each student then designs a machine using at least four of the simple machines to replace their brain. The machine is supposed to do something that happens in their head (blinking, yawning, remembering, making boogers, etc.). I really emphasize using logic in their machines. We go through several sketches in order to make sure the machines make sense. The rest of the project is dedicated to the kids using construction paper scraps (it's a great way to use up scraps) to create their machine on final paper. My students love the project and it really gets them to use their brains (pun intended)!

See the lesson plan here! 

See the presentation here!
**I don't usually upload the presentations I do because the files are often pretty big. This file is a .mov file that can be downloaded from google docs and navigated with the arrow buttons on the computer. It includes the Goldberg images, simple machines, and three videos. If you look at it directly from google docs, the slides at the beginning go really fast. You need to download it in order to have control of the speed of the slides. If it doesn't work for some reason, let me know and I'll try to troubleshoot and come up with a solution that works.


Hope Hunter Knight said... [Reply]

very cool, i love it. thanks for sharing all your info too. adding to my to-do list!

Hannah- Art.Paper.Scissors.Glue! said... [Reply]

love it!

Zach Stoller said... [Reply]


Katrina said... [Reply]

So awesome! But how do your trace their sillhouettes?

Zach Stoller said... [Reply]

It is really super simple. I have the kids stand up by the chalk board. I have a digital projector that I turn on to a white screen. I just trace their shadows onto a piece of white paper while they stand there. It only takes about 10 seconds per kid. You could also use a little lamp and get the same effect.

Baille said... [Reply]

This is so cool. I attended Thomas when I was younger and in attempts to further procrastinate writing my artist statement, I started thinking about my elementary art teacher and wanted to see who was teaching there now! I landed upon this blog and am so glad I did. Its refreshing and a friendly reminder that this was where it all began for me, and it makes me so happy to children involved with art. Also, having them write artist statements is so great and develops them at a much younger age. I'm currently attending SCAD and I still struggle writing them.

Zach Stoller said... [Reply]

Baille- It's super cool to hear from an old student. I've been teaching at Thomas for about five years now. I took over once Mrs. Dougherty retired. Mrs. Arcaro and Ms. Young (Now Mrs. Burton) both remember you fondly and say hello! Good luck with the rest of your time at SCAD. I graduated from CCAD, so I'm very familiar with art school life and everything that comes with it.

threebeeschool said... [Reply]

Am keen to follow this lesson plan through however am unable to view your presentation?
Google docs says document missing - is this because I'm in the Uk?
Would really appreciate it if we could resolve this.

Zach Stoller said... [Reply]

Threebee- I just went to Google Docs and it worked fine. I don't know what's going on there. If you give me your email address, I'd be happy to email it to you if you'd like.

threebeeschool said... [Reply]

Would appreciate that very much - please email me at
Thanks - still unable to link to it here in UK

Anonymous said... [Reply]

This lesson is AMAZING. I work for a science center and would love to incorporate this lesson into my summer camps. Unfortunately, I cannot view the presentation either. Could you possibly e-mail it to THANKS so much in advance!

Tartseam said... [Reply]

Zach! All your lessons are awesome! I want to do this with 3rd or 4th. Wondering how you led them through the silhouette part for their profile? Anyway, thank you for sharing! I love your blog.

Zach Stoller said... [Reply]

Thanks! I am lucky enough to have a digital projector in my classroom. I use it to project light onto the chalkboard. I just have students put their name on a paper, then come up and stand in front of the chalkboard. I then quickly trace their silhouette. I'll typically get the silhouettes done as the students are finishing their previous project so they are ready to go when we start the simple machine brains. It only takes 10 seconds or so per student. I'm glad you like the project!

Mrs Carlson said... [Reply]

Thanks Zach for being so transparent and sharing with your lessons and hard work. I am also an art teacher (minnesota) and will be doing this with our 5th graders. I can't access the google presentation and would dearly appreciate it, if you have time.

My email e r i c a 8 7 3 at gmail dot com (hope you understand what I am doing here) - I requested access. Hopefully that will come through!

Ana Medina said... [Reply]

Your lesson looks awesome. Thank you for posting the lesson too. I also have trouble accessing your presentation. My email is

Ms. S said... [Reply]

I would love to be able to have a copy of the presentation for this lesson! The email is c s c h n e i d e r @ s t m c a t h o l i c s c h o o l dot o r g