Building machines… and life skills

Katherine Brennecke
Mathews Group Managing Director of Training & Content

For the entirety of my career, it’s been my mission to simplify. To tell stories, no matter how complex or technical, in a way that people can understand quickly. That’s what we do every day. We help people in industries like energy and aerospace and education communicate their ideas.

But a couple weekends ago, we turned all that around and got complicated.

A high school student tells her machine’s story at the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest finals.

As a sponsor of the 30th Annual Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, two communicators from The Mathews Group (Tia and me), got to spend a weekend at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry judging the best of our country’s future engineers as they, in the words of the folks at Rube Goldberg, Inc. put it, “solved a simple task in the most overcomplicated, inefficient, and hilarious way possible.”

Hundreds of students and their elaborate machines filled the exhibit space showcasing their hard work as teams of judges from places like General Mills, Southwest Airlines, NASA, Argonne National Laboratory and many more evaluated them on criteria including creativity, humor and teamwork.

Now, you might be wondering what all this has to do with communication. These are STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) whiz kids from kindergarten through college, building machines from everyday items to solve a task. Doesn’t sound like a lot of “soft skill” action.

But like we tell clients every day, it’s not enough to just build it.

As each team did their official machine run, they were allowed three minutes to tell their story.

And that’s where those so-called soft skills come in.

Teams spent months and months working together to create a machine that checks all the boxes. They know everything about it. They could spend hours telling you about the process, the physics, the engineering and even the drama you get when you mix humans and the frustration of building something.

But in order to share their wonderful creation with the world, they needed to be able to strip the machine’s story down, figure out what would matter to someone who was seeing it for the first time.

They had to remember what it’s like not to know.

Katherine and Tia: proud judges of the 30th Anniversary Rube Goldberg Machine Contest Finals in Chicago

Then, they were challenged to educate us – and be entertaining in the process – in only three minutes. It’s not an easy task. And then they had to stand in front of a group of strangers, many of whom were wearing bright yellow sashes with the word JUDGE in bold capital letters across their chests, and deliver that three-minute speech. I’m pretty sure most of us wouldn’t want to have to face an audience like that.

That process and experience is a life lesson I hope they carry with them.

Every team I saw did an admirable job. They told their stories, each with their own flair. Some relied on a group-based presentation, others had one spokesperson, but they all broke down the process and made us understand with creative storytelling. In addition to all the other wonderful things these students learned in the months of trial and error, creative breakthroughs and circuitous problem solving that earned them a spot in the final competition, they learned what we wish every student would have the chance to learn – that when you have an amazing machine or product or idea, you have to be able to explain it to other people and bring them along. And that’s how you’ll succeed.