Cutting a Ribbon the Hard Way

Engineering Students Use Skills to Make a Simple Task Cleverly Complicated

Oct. 8, 2009

UT Dallas mechanical engineering students succeeded in making Saturday’s ribbon cutting at Frisco’s new Sci-Tech Discovery Center much more complicated than necessary.

Which was exactly what they’d been asked to do.

Given a few weeks to create a Rube Goldberg contraption to cut the ribbon, the students fashioned an 8-by-20-foot machine in which water flowed down a tube and filled a bucket that raised a fulcrum that put in motion a toy truck that struck a lever that released a basketball that rolled down three ramps before hitting a release that dropped a battle-axe that severed the ribbon.

Yes, scissors would have been easier. But not as much fun.

And, yes, it was just a prop battle-ax consisting of more aluminum foil than forged steel, but it accomplished the goal.

“They did a great job,” said Greg Lee, a visiting assistant professor of mechanical engineering and faculty adviser to the University’s student chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. “Their only guidance was to build a Rube Goldberg machine to cut a ribbon, and otherwise they had no guidelines and no specifications and just a few weeks to pull it off. My main role was just to say, ‘No fire and no explosives.’”

In the process the seven freshmen and sophomores learned a lot about project management, he added – an area usually not dealt with until junior or senior year – as well as basic engineering skills.

“You build a part, you test it and then you add more parts and test again, and you have to keep doing that, testing and troubleshooting at every point along the way,” said Steven Karacostas, a freshman member of the team.

About 100 people watched the machine go through its paces Saturday, and as the battle-ax fell and severed the ribbon, cheers went up and Sci-Tech chairman Byron Williams observed, “Just another reason to send your kids to UTD.”

Added Mark Spong, dean of the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science at UT Dallas: “Many people, including me, talk about ‘fearless engineering,’ but these kids really do it.”


Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, newscenter@utdallas.edu

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The team behind the Rube Goldberg contraption

The Rube Goldberg ribbon-cutting demonstration drew on the talents of (from left) Joseph Nguyen, Hsiang “Clive” Liu, Steven Karacostas, Molly McGregor, Alec Burns, Alex Kollaja and Stuart Yun. Most are also members of the UT Dallas student chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, which managed the project.

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