Chain Reactions

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students building chain reactions

Chain reactions are a fun, whimsical set of connected events linked together into a series of reactions, each one triggering the next. Imagine marbles rolling down ramps, toppling dominoes, pendulums, levers and falling objects. Inspired by artists such as Rube Goldberg and Bruno Munari, chain reactions are a fun way to learn about cause and effect, simple machines and the energy of motion.  The 4-H Chain Reaction Challenge celebrates STEaM by encouraging creativity, design thinking, art and engineering to come up with complex inventions to complete simple tasks. 4-H families, clubs and other groups are encouraged to build Chain Reaction Machines and share them at the 4-H Makers Expo every spring.

Getting Started Building Chain Reactions

Making chain reactions is all about just doing it, but getting started is often a challenge.  Here are a few pointers.

Inspiration and Examples – have an idea of what your end goal is.  Watch some videos of other chain reaction machines to get some ideas.  Watching other chain reactions will help with ideas of possible materials to use, and ways to use them.  YouTube is a great source of chain reaction examples, search using terms like "chain reactions" to get a selection of some really fun chain reaction videos.  Some of our favorites include “Joseph’s Machines”, “the Lemonade Machine” and “OK Go, this too Shall Pass”.

Make it Fun! – Find some fun materials and objects to include in your chain reaction.  This might be some stuffed animals or toys, kitchen tools or other random objects.  You might also try and follow a theme or tell a story.

Collecting materials – While one can really use almost anything to make chain reactions, there are a few important things you will likely want to include.

  • Balls, marbles and other things that roll.
  • Ramps can be made from boards, tubes, cardboard, books.
  • Towers and other structures to build height.
  • Wooden blocks, books and dominoes can be used for building or toppling over.
  • Items that store energy like rubber bands, springs or pendulums
  • Don’t forget the decorations.  Including items to decorate and make it personal.

Other Resources

Working With Youth – This is a one-page printable guide that offers some suggestions for building chain reactions with youth.

Simple Machines - This is a one-page guide illustrating the different components of simple chain reaction machines.

Energy Transfer in Chain Reactions – This is a one-page guide that explains some of the basic science of simple machines and energy transfer that youth experience while building chain reactions.

Tinkering Studio - One of the best resources we’ve found for making chain reactions with youth comes from the Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. Lots of great ideas and some nice printable resources.

Young Inventors Program – The Young Inventors program has some nice curriculum resources suitable for upper elementary through middle school age youth.


4-H Chain Reaction Challenge

The 4-H Chain Reaction Challenge is a fun way for youth to work together to build a crazy contraption while including fun elements that follow a theme. Teams of two to eight youth ages 8 – 18 work together to build a chain reaction machine and share it at the 4-H Makers Expo every spring.


Extension Field Specialist - Science Literacy
Extension Field Specialist, 4-H Science Education
Phone: (603) 447-3834
Office: Cooperative Extension, Taylor Hall, Durham, NH 03824