September 9, 2008

Kids Wrap Up Summer Program With Inspired Contraptions

By Tom Lochner

Linnea Gullikson took a toy gun and shot a mousetrap, which pulled open the pop-up top of a drinking bottle, pouring water down a winding tube from where it dropped onto the blades of a water wheel fashioned from the hollow halves of plastic Easter eggs.

The turning paddles emptied into a round container while a string wound around the axle gradually pulled aloft one end of a ramp, allowing a rubber duck to slide into the "pond," to applause.

If it sounds like a Rube Goldberg contraption, that is in fact what it was. Linnea, 10, of Oakland was one of about a dozen recent graduates of third grade from all over the Bay Area and beyond who showed off their Rube Goldberg-inspired machines at Washington Elementary School in Richmond on Friday as the final project of their UC Berkeley-sponsored summer class, "Those Wonderful Simple Machines!" The class was taught by Michelle Harrison and Steve Monson, both of whom teach at Castro Elementary School in El Cerrito during the school year. Linnea called her project "Automatic Duck Pond Machine."

The university's Academic Talent Development Program, begun in 1981, annually offers challenging summer classes for highly motivated elementary school students from kindergarten to sixth grade in math, science, writing and some of the arts at the Richmond school. Tuition, materials and a processing fee run about $500 for the three-week program, which ended Friday. Admission standards are high and include good grades, good conduct and attitude, teacher recommendation and examples of a student's work. A small number of scholarships are available.

Outside another classroom Friday, recent fourth-graders competed in "The Great Concrete Boat Float-Off" as part of Bob Fabini's fluid physics class. Fabini teaches science at El Cerrito High School during the school year; his assistant this summer was his son Douglas, a UC Berkeley student who graduated from El Cerrito High in 2007.

During the course, the students "discovered" Archimedes' Law on hydrostatics.

"Everything in the course is based on experiments," Fabini said.

To build their boats, the students each started with a 4-by-4-by- 12-inch block of plastic foam, which they carved down to their desired shape. Some emphasized lightness and hydrodynamics, others aesthetics.

"It's their choice," said Bob Fabini, "and that's fine."

For the float-off, the concrete-hulled boats were pulled from one end to the other of a shallow, 10-foot-long tank by a system consisting of a string, two pulleys and a small weight. Some of the boats capsized and had to be steadied with weights. The fastest run clocked 3.34 seconds.

More than two dozen classes were offered this summer; subjects included oviparous animals; rocky reefs and tidal pools; numerous mathematics, physics, chemistry and engineering courses; human anatomy and physiology; Greek mythology; Egyptology; and several writing classes, including one combined with drawing and another with math.

Reach Tom Lochner at 510-262-2760 or [email protected] MORE INFO

To learn more about UC Berkeley's Academic Talent Development Program, visit

Originally published by Tom Lochner, West County Times.

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