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‘Up’ to New Tricks at Alumni Cup

Students Draw Inspiration From Films and the Fight Against Pandemic at Annual Rube Goldberg Contest

By Karen Shih ’09

Four students in red firefighter hats celebrate by their Rube Goldberg machine

The fire protection engineering team, which last won the 2019 Alumni Cup, celebrates its most recent victory with its Olympics-inspired Rube Goldberg contraption. Below, members of the chemical and biomolecular engineering team, which came in second, watch nervously to see if their chemical reaction will fill the balloon.

Photos by Stephanie S. Cordle

From an Olympics-inspired machine complete with a flaming torch to start and end the course to not one, but two “Up”-themed contraptions based on the balloon-centric Pixar movie, the 11th Alumni Cup competition at the A. James Clark School of Engineering featured whimsy and creativity—and plenty of engineering prowess, of course.

“The brainstorming is the most fun part,” said aerospace engineering student Meredith Embrey ’25. “After a while you have to force yourself to make up ideas that you don’t think will work, but you make each other laugh while you’re doing it.”

In this year’s challenge, teams from each academic department had to create a Rube Goldberg-like machine with at least 20 convoluted steps that could inflate and pop a balloon at the end, all within 90 seconds.

During the face-off in the Jeong H. Kim Engineering Building on Friday, cheers echoed from above as students, faculty and staff—some wearing firefighter helmets, colorful propeller hats and bandanas to support their departments—lined the steps and railings above the atrium.

With the competition taking placing during midterm week, several teams pulled all-nighters to complete their tasks.

“We really bonded over our shared tribulations,” said Kaylin Baumiller ’25 of the bioengineering team, which had built its machine next door in A. James Clark Hall. “We couldn’t find a door that was big enough to fit our contraption through, which took up a lot of our time last night! But it’s all worth it when everything comes together in the end.”

Each team incorporated aspects of their discipline, with bioengineering taking little balls drawn to look like people through a coronavirus journey from infection to vaccine discovery; civil and environmental engineering recreating the building project that spurred curmudgeonly Carl to float away at the start of “Up”; and chemical and biomolecular engineering combining muriatic acid with bicarbonate to create carbon dioxide to fill its balloon.

The annual competition is sponsored by by the Engineering Alumni Network; a panel of alumni, along with Dean Samuel Graham Jr., judged each entry and picked the winner—fire protection engineering. Chemical and biomolecular engineering and bioengineering took second and third place, respectively.

“It’s been a crazy two weeks with a lot of challenges, but it’s been fun,” said fire protection engineering team captain Jacob Witlin ’23, who donned a celebratory toga befitting his department’s winning entry.

A student in a blue lab coat, protective glasses on her head and face mask, surrounded by other students in masks, watches a blue balloon on top of a beaker filled with a white substance

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