sealPurdue Education and Career Briefs

January 1998

Making the simple difficult is object of Rube Goldberg Contest

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: Video and photographs of past contests are available. Journalists will not be allowed on the stage with the machines during the competition, but they are welcome on stage before and after the contest. Purdue will provide video and photo pool coverage and direct audio and video feeds. Video b-roll, photos and a news release will be available the afternoon of the event. Satellite assistance is available. If you have questions, call Grady Jones, Purdue News Service, (765) 494-2079; e-mail,

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Many of us have very creative ways for turning off an alarm clock, but Purdue University students will be building contraptions to do it for us at the 16th annual Rube Goldberg Machine Contest on Feb. 7.

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Several teams of Purdue students are building the most complicated and often humorous machines to get the job done. The contest, free and open to the public, begins at 11:30 a.m. in Purdue's Elliott Hall of Music.

The winner of the Purdue contest goes on to represent the university at the National Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, to be held at Purdue on April 4.

The event honors the late cartoonist Rube Goldberg, who specialized in drawing whimsical machines with complex mechanisms to perform simple tasks.

Teams expecting to compete include the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, a joint team of the Society of Women Engineers and Society of Physics Students, Purdue residence halls, and Theta Tau, a professional engineering fraternity that organizes the contest, with support from industrial sponsor General Electric.

The competitors are challenged to build a contraption that uses at least 20 steps to turn off an alarm clock. Each machine must run, be reset and run again in nine minutes. Machines also will be judged and awarded points based on the creative use of materials and use of related themes.

In addition to cash prizes for the top three teams, a "People's Choice" award will be given to the team whose machine gets the most votes from audience members.

Student organizers of the contest maintain a World Wide Web page at

CONTACT: Chad Goze, contest chairman, (765) 743-2461; e-mail,

New history course to explore the space age

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- The symbol of tomorrow has become a subject of yesterday.

A few universities have started teaching space exploration as history. At Purdue University, often called the "mother of astronauts," this history is taught with a global perspective.

"Certainly we'll be dealing with some of the science and technology that was developed through space exploration," says Michael Smith, the assistant professor of history who designed the course. "But our greatest concentration will be on the politics and culture of space travel; how governments use it and how people appreciate it as a feat of modern science."

Twenty-one Purdue graduates have been selected for space flight, including the first and last men to walk on the moon, and two of the six American astronauts who have served on board Mir, the Russian space station. Smith's research in developing the curriculum put him in contact with historians at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration who say the course is one of only a couple dozen of its kind in the nation.

The Purdue class made it debut during the spring semester, which began Jan. 12. Smith says he expects the subject matter to draw students from a variety of disciplines.

"Naturally, we're going to get a lot of history majors, but I think it also could be an attractive option for engineering students as well as liberal arts majors with a general interest in space," he says.

Smith says the course fits into the recent trend to create history courses that defy national boundaries. "Historians tend to teach the history of a single country, but this course offers a much more global perspective," Smith explains. "We're starting to see more and more of this type of instruction at the college level."

Smith's interest in the topic developed out of his studies of 20th century Russian and Soviet history.

"Space exploration is a very good topic for comparative Soviet and American historical studies," Smith says. "The two space programs have been very much the same in terms of achievement and technology, but their institutional frameworks are very different."

The course will cover such topics as the interaction between human values and space exploration; the implications of satellite technology for international relations, the global economy and ecology; and the "cold war" in space between the United States and the former Soviet Union.

"The cultural values, scientific institutions, military imperatives and public policies of these two countries are very different, and it's all reflected in their space programs," Smith explains.

CONTACT: Smith, (765) 494-4122; e-mail,

Less noise at home makes for better-adjusted preschoolers

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Parents wanting to help their children adjust to life's stresses and be better prepared for preschool may want to turn down the noise in their home, says a Purdue University professor of psychological sciences.

"Kids who come from highly noisy or chaotic homes experience less cognitive growth, delayed language skills, have trouble mastering their environments and have increased anxiety," says Theodore Wachs.

Wachs studies environmental influences on early childhood development. He helped create a questionnaire for parents to fill out to measure the level of physical disorganization in the home. The "chaos" questionnaire assesses what he calls "the noise confusion of the home."

He says a chaotic home is one factor associated with adjustment problems in children. For example, in a study of preschool children's reaction to caregiver turnover in day care centers, those from more disorganized homes had more trouble adapting and functioning during the time of change.

"The effects vary with the temperament and sex of the child," he says. "Those who have the most trouble associated with a chaotic home life are boys who are intense, fussy or negative."

Wachs offers these suggestions for toning down "noise confusion" in the home:

CONTACT: Wachs, (765) 494-6996; e-mail,

Food science recruiters follow coaches' lead

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Purdue University's Department of Food Science is signing up "blue chip" freshmen thanks to some recruiting tips from the athletic department.

By identifying "prospects" during their junior year of high school, maintaining regular contact with them until they enroll in college, and then providing administrative counseling and tutoring services once they arrive on campus, the department has grown 137 percent over the last five years.

"In 1992 we had 59 students majoring in food science. This fall the freshman class numbered 37 out of a total of 140 students," says Philip E. Nelson, a professor and head of the department. "Of those 140 students, 33 have some form of a scholarship, and we hope to eventually be able to offer all food science majors some financial support."

Enrollment numbers aren't the only ones going up.

"We've really raised the bar in terms of quality students," Nelson says. "Our freshmen are coming in with better test scores and higher class rankings."

And placement statistics indicate that there is no shortage of jobs for those who complete degrees. "We placed 100 percent of our May 1997 graduates with an average starting salary of $32,000," Nelson says. "Some students had offers as high as $42,000, which is competitive with salaries in some of the more traditional scientific fields."

Now Nelson is fielding inquiries from food science departments around the country hoping to duplicate Purdue's success. He says one of the biggest challenges in recruiting is getting students to consider food science as a major.

"It's no secret that there is a recruiting problem nationally," Nelson says. "Food processing is the largest industry in the United States, but high school students have no idea how broad and varied the field actually is. When asked about what kinds of jobs are available, they immediately think of fast-food restaurants and grocery stores."

The reality is that food science graduates are qualified for careers in product development, research, quality assurance, sales, purchasing and production management.

The department looked at a variety of recruitment models, including those used by business schools and Purdue's own Schools of Engineering. But Nelson, who is chairman of the university's athletic affairs committee, discovered that the model that seemed to have the most relevance was the one used by the Purdue Boilermaker football program.

Using information on high school juniors compiled annually by the Purdue Office of Admissions, the food science department sends career literature to about 9,000 teen-agers who have expressed an interest in both science and attending Purdue. Between 400 and 500 students respond by returning a postcard, and they receive mailings from the department every six weeks.

Nelson estimates that about 10 percent of those students actually end up applying to Purdue.

"This is where our recruiting effort is really stepped up," Nelson says. "The students who apply to Purdue are sent a T-shirt and an 800 number to call for more information. We also encourage a campus visit with a parent and provide them with faculty contacts."

Once the freshman students begin their studies, they are scheduled for mandatory meetings with the department's administrative adviser who sets up tutoring sessions where necessary and can assist with virtually any concern -- personal or academic -- a student may have.

"The students meet with this adviser every two weeks during their first semester on campus," Nelson explains. "We want to do everything possible to get them started on the right foot, because if they're successful, then we're successful."

CONTACT: Nelson, (765) 494-8256; e-mail,

Compiled by Sharon Bowker, (765) 494-2077; e-mail,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

A Purdue student resets his team's entry in the 1997 Rube Goldberg Contest. Duct tape and string were staple materials in creating the machine that loaded a compact disc into a CD player and played it. (Purdue News Service Photo by Vince Walter)
Color photo, electronic transmission, and Web and ftp download available. Photo ID: Rube98.local
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