Making 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, and levers and falling objects. Inspired by artists such as Rube Goldberg, chain reactions are a fun way to learn about cause and effect, simple machines and energy of motion. 

The 4-H STEaMpunk Chain Reaction Challenge celebrates STEaM by encouraging creativity, design thinking, art and engineering to come up with complex inventions to complete a simple task.  4-H families, clubs and other groups are encouraged to build STEaMpunk Chain Reaction Machines and share them at the 4-H Makers Expo every spring.

Building Chain Reactions with Youth
Making chain reactions is all about just doing it. You can use all kinds of things that you find around the house. Watch some videos on YouTube, search "Rube Goldberg Machines".  One of the best resources on making chain reactions with youth comes from the Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium in San Francisco.  There are some great ideas for making chain reactions and some nice printable resources.

4-H STEaMpunk Chain Reaction Challenge
4-H STEaMpunk Chain Reactions are crazy contraptions that do something simple, like bringing the cows home, with an overly complicated series of chain reactions. In 2022 4-H members will have a chance to build a STEaMpunk Chain Reaction machine that Brings the Cows Home and share it at the 4-H Makers Expo in Spring of 2022.

Till the Cows Come Home

This old farmer's idiom means something that will likely take a long time, since there was no guarantee when the cows would finally come home! In the STEaMpunk Chain Reaction Challenge, 4-Hers work together to design and build a unique contraption that completes a series of chain reactions that eventually does bring the cows home.  Any cow will work, but not live ones. All participating teams must include at least two cows. 

The Rules
Your invention must:

  •  Include 2 or more cows. Complete 5 or more steps
  •  Have a run time of 2 minutes or less
  •  Fit inside a 16 ft2 footprint and be no taller than 5’
  •  Be free standing

Getting Started

  • Individuals or family teams are ideal
  • Get help from a parent, coach, advisor or mentor
  • Do some research – Google terms like "Rube Goldberg machine" or "chain reaction machine"
  • Collect a big pile of stuff and start tinkering

For more information contact Claes Thelemarck or click the links below for complete rules and scoresheets.

STEaMpunk Invention Challenge Rules

STEaMpunk Invention Scoresheet

STEaMpunk Goals Card


Claes Thelemarck
Extension Field Specialist - Science Literacy
Full Extension Field Spec
Phone: (603) 447-3834
Office: Cooperative Extension, Taylor Hall, Durham, NH 03824