The assignment for the fifth-graders at Excelsior Elementary School was a fun one, but somewhat complex: Build a machine, often referred to as a Rube Goldberg machine, that could transport a gift from Stuart Little, the talking mouse of book and movie fame, from one point to another.
While some of the students in that class a dozen or so years ago might not even remember the assignment, Alana Aamodt sure does.
In fact, for the 2014 Minnetonka High School (MHS) graduate the task instilled in her a passion for science, and later, physics, to last a lifetime.
“It was the first time I’d ever heard of Rube Goldberg machine,” Aamodt recalled of the grade school assignment. “And mine didn’t work very well at all, probably because I used tape and cardboard, which wasn’t very sturdy. I remember being jealous of the machine that one of my classmates, who got help from his dad, built. But I wasn’t discouraged.”
Even with that initial setback, Aamodt, who grew up in Chanhassen, would apply her passion for science at MHS, where she was one of only three girls in an Advanced Placement (AP) Physics unit, and at Colorado College (CC), where she earned a degree in physics last spring and currently works.
Despite numerous efforts and campaigns to encourage girls and students of marginalized identities (LGBTQ) to pursue STEM coursework and careers, Aamodt remains a rarity.
“Even though educators continue to push diversity in STEM, it’s not happening to the degree that it should be,” she said. “Science is intimidating for girls and for students of marginalized identities. In the United States, only 19 percent of all undergrad engineering students are women, and 16 percent are of marginalized identities. And the retention rate on the job is quite low. Because the aptitude for STEM is learned and is not innate, we just think this is a waste of a lot of potential talent.”
With a prototype toy kit that she and a fellow CC student, Anna Gilbertso, have created, Aamodt is hoping to instill the same passion she found for science back in elementary school to a diverse range of elementary and middle school students ages 8-12.
Their fledgling toy is called Momentix, a kit aimed that allows children to create numerous versions of a Rube Goldberg machine to complete any number of tasks. The boxed toy comes with all of the necessary parts, such as sturdy wooden pieces, levers, pulleys, ramps, strings and balls, to allow children to assemble and then tear down multiple versions of their own Rube Goldberg machines.
In recent weeks, Aamodt and Gilbertson received a financial boost they hope will help them eventually produce their product on a large scale and begin selling the kits to individuals and schools in early 2020.
That boost came by way of a $15,000 first place prize in Colorado College’s Big Idea competition, a “Shark Tank”-like event for startups launched by CC students.
“We were really excited; the competition was extremely tough,” Aamodt said. The $15,000, she noted, isn’t enough to start a production run, but it will allow her and Gilbertson to start an advertising campaign, complete the branding of their product, bolster the Momentix website and pay some legal fees.
All of those activities, Aamodt said, will help create buzz prior to launching a Kickstarter campaign this coming fall in which they hope to raise $120,000 to make a production run possible and distribute their kits starting next year.
Aamodt came up with the idea for Momentix when she learned, while studying physics at CC, about the overwhelming lack of diversity in STEM courses and in the workforce.
“In our education system, science classes only seem to reward immediate success,” she noted. “We believe Momentix, which is a fun, accessible version of a Rube Goldberg machine, promotes creativity and natural problem-solving skills, which is more likely to keep girls and students of marginalized identities interested in continuing to learn. It teaches them that failing is not bad, as they can just use their imaginations and start over.
“This helps students develop an attitude called ‘grit,’” she continued, “which has been linked to academic success as well as success in the workplace.”
Aamodt started the process of creating Momentix in a woodshop at CC. As she was busy building prototypes, Gilbertson, her friend and a physics classmate, joined her in the endeavor. In 2018, they won a $5,000 prize in CC’s Big Idea competition and used the money to test their kit with students and fine tune the product.
“So far we know of 68 combinations, and counting, of Rube Goldberg machines that can be built with Momentix,” Aamodt said. “Every kid who tested our product seemed to come up with something new, which is where the creativity, combined with science, comes into play.”
By the time they launch Momentix, scheduled for early 2020, Aamodt said the company’s website will include a 2D designer to assist users as well as a place for students to share videos of their creations. She added that the website will also help build a community of STEM mentors and students nationwide.
“We can’t change the lack of diversity in STEM overnight,” she said. “But we’re going to do our best by creating a product that encourages girls and students of marginalized identities to explore STEM. We also think that by creating a supportive community for all students who want to pursue STEM we can keep them involved and interested, perhaps choosing careers in those areas.”
Momentix is expected to cost about $40 per kit. While the product is not yet for sale, people who are interested can follow the progress, as well as join in the Kickstarter campaign, by visiting www.momentixtoys.com.