Playing marbles for credits

“A fine mix of disappointment and fun”, practice teacher Bob van Vliet calls the marble marathon of first-year Mechanical Engineering students. “Collaboration is key.”

The martble machine project is all about is all about transfer, connection and cooperation.(Photo: Justyna Botor)

It is time for competition at the end of the academic year. But this first assignment is all about transfer, connection and cooperation. Over 750 first-year Mechanical Engineering students, divided into 112 teams, spent two months working on a marble machine. On Monday 25 October, they brought their creations to the hall of the 3mE building for a marble relay race. Of course things broke sometimes, but there time was allotted to fix them.

According to the instructions, a marble machine must be able to catch a wooden ‘marble’ the size of a tennis ball and pass it on to the next machine at the same height 50 centimetres further down. No motor may be used, only the weight of one or two other marbles. Sounds complicated? Watch the video. Or one of the 111 other entries.

The 112 teams were divided into four groups – two in the morning, two in the afternoon. At each session, over 25 marble machines were set up on a long table in the hall. The idea was to pass the ball on to the next contraption, just like in a relay race. “But even if each machine is 95% reliable, after 13 machines there is only a 50% chance that the marble will make it,” Van Vliet explains. “This morning we managed 19 machines in a row – that’s three more than last year’s record.”

Although each group has the same task, they build very different solutions with Perspex planes and bolts. In addition to the expected seesaw and swivel constructions, Van Vliet also noticed a surprising scissor mechanism and free-falling counterweights. “I take a few of these to put on the cupboard every year,” he says. He looks back on “a joyous conclusion of the course” – presumably just like more than 750 first-year students.

Much to Van Vliet’s astonishment, there was a perfect run in the last session. “I had bet quite a lot of money that it wouldn’t make it, but I was delighted it did.”

  • For another amazing marble machine, have a look at the marble organ by Martin Molin
Science editor Jos Wassink

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