It was 31 seconds from start to finish, and 31 seconds of holding their collective breath.
Six hundred hours of work to make a complex 47-step machine to zip a zipper were on the line. The second time through, however, something didn’t work. A model skull was supposed to drop in a certain place and didn’t, foiled by a string that didn’t pull a pin.
“My heart sank,” New Auburn High School senior Dru Galetka said.
Fortunately, New Auburn’s team got another chance. In their four remaining runs, it was 31 seconds of perfection each time.
When the news was announced Saturday that they were national champion for the fourth time in a decade, there was a lot of yelling. Yells from the 16 seniors from New Auburn at the national Rube Goldberg Machine Contest. From their teachers. And from many of the other adults at the contest.
“The parents that were there were screaming in the background,” said senior Forest Luneman.
So New Auburn grabbed the national championship again, as it had done in 2005, 2006 and 2011.
Nineteen teams competed at the nationals at the Waukesha County Technical College in Pewaukee. New Auburn came out on top of the second place team from Minooka, Ill., a third place effort from a team from Baltimore, Md. and a fourth place squad from Columbia, Mich. New Auburn by far had the smallest enrollment of any school in the nationals.
Jim Skuban, a technology and engineering teacher at New Auburn, said winning the national title wasn’t easy. “We ran into a heck of a lot of adversity with snow days,” he said, since most of the work was done in February and early March.
The students were helped by student teachers Joseph Britt and Ethan Schooley of the University of Wisconsin-Stout.
“It was very challenging. We paid very close attention to detail,” said Schooley, who is a Stout senior from Vesper.
That may sound odd to base a contest on cartoons. Rube Goldberg won fame for his cartoons showing complicated machines doing simple tasks.
For the Rube Goldberg contest, the New Auburn students had to come with a machine that took at least 20 steps to zip a zipper.
Here’s some of the 47 steps: Food goes into a pump with a temperature gauge. Another pump hits a crow, knocks into an eyeball and the eyeball rolls down an incline plain. The eyeball hits a bone, releasing a swinging eyeball into a set of what’s called Newton Balls.
In the final steps, an electrical switch is pulled down, releasing a bag of bones and pulling the zipper.
Simple really. For prospective engineers.
Schooley said the students went into pairs and designed smaller models of a machine. Then they took the best ideas and used them on the final machine.
Schooley said it was amazing seeing how the students grew during the process.
“It was a very rewarding experience. It was something I can take into my class someday,” he said.
Senior Jacob Mickelson was a freshman the last time New Auburn won the national championship.
“Since we won nationals three times before this, everybody had high hopes,” Mickelson said.
He said he loved the team’s final design, and once it went through all of the steps perfect (without any human intervention) 30-40 times, the team got excited about its prospects.
“It really builds your confidence. When you first start, it’s really hard to picture,” Mickelson said.
Galetka and the rest of the team needed that confidence when the machine malfunctioned in the second run. But they had encountered the same problem before, so they fixed it. Competitors were able to not have to count one of the six runs, so from then on New Auburn was perfect.
Lunemann, who is competing at this weekend’s state forensics contest, helped the team by being its presenter. “I had to speak for three minutes. That was my maximum time,” he said.
He told the judges that the main character in the New Auburn machine, Frank, had a cold so he needed help zipping a zipper. He honed his speech, and pitched in whenever the team needed help.
Lunemann plans on attending Vermillion Community College in Ely, Minn. to study to be an wildlife enforcement officer. He is also in the Air National Guard and will do training for that in Texas.
Mickelson plans on attending a technical school and study to become a firefighter-medic.
And Galetka is planning on becoming a mechanical engineer.
All three can proudly tell their future classmates they joined a team that engineered a national championship.