Physics professor and alumni show off Rube Goldberg skills in Japan

Bryce Danielson ’11, Associate Professor of Physics Jason Engbrecht, Christian Weeks ’13, and translator Roberto Tsuru in the studio with the Rube Goldberg machine they built to compete on a Japanese game show.

St. Olaf College Associate Professor of Physics Jason Engbrecht has a reputation for collaborating with students to build top-notch Rube Goldberg machines.

That work  — which gained national attention when St. Olaf teams led by Engbrecht won the national collegiate Rube Goldberg competition in 2009 and 2012 — recently attracted the attention of Japanese game show organizers. They invited Engbrecht and two alumni, Bryce Danielson ’11 and Christian Weeks ’13, to compete against Japanese Rube Goldberg champions as part of a New Year’s Day television special featuring a variety of skill contests.

Rube Goldberg Machines are complicated contraptions that use a number of whimsical and counterintuitive steps to accomplish very simple tasks. St. Olaf created these machines for the national collegiate Rube Goldberg competitions from 2009 to 2012. Danielson was a member of the 2010 team, and Weeks was a member of the 2011 team. That success led Target and 3M to ask Engbrecht to work on Rube Goldberg machines showcasing their products — and videos of the resulting machines have garnered nearly a million views online.

Associate Professor of Physics Jason Engbrecht and Bryce Danielson ’11 provide a better view of the Rube Goldberg machine they built, which worked flawlessly on the show.

Although Engbrecht’s team did not win the Japanese game show competition on the Fujiyama program, their machine worked flawlessly — a great feat with merely four days to travel, gather the supplies, and assemble their piece in a foreign country.

“It was a very fun experience. Winning or losing was very secondary,” Engbrecht says. “We were really three partners building the machine. They were phenomenal — there is no way I could have done it without them.”

Although the television special highlighted Engbrecht as the main builder of the piece, Danielson and Weeks were just as involved in the creative leadership of designing, producing, and testing the brand new large-scale machine.

“We all knew that we worked great as a team in the past, and that we would be successful in this endeavor not matter the time frame,” Danielson says. “Overall, I was looking for a fun challenge and a unique experience with some Oles that I consider close friends.”

The hospitality provided by the game show organizers also made for an exceptional travel experience abroad.

“Fuji TV did a great job of taking care of us while we were there with food, an interpreter, taxi rides, etc. The filming day itself was really enjoyable,” Weeks says. “We were all so nervous to compete against the other machine and the dozen or so people there to film us ramped up the reality and excitement of the competition. When we got our first run perfect, we had a huge sense of relief.”