The interplay between potential and kinetic energy Fall 2019-May 2021

Our take on a classic toy for a new museum. With SkillSet students and Chas Llewellyn.


How we choose to participate matters. How we engage or disengage has impacts that resonate and rattle long after we stop putting work into the system. STEAM Cycle is an interactive abstraction of a complex system with one user input. It plays with the relationship between potential and kinetic energy and the work required to lift something up to its full state of  potential.

The user is invited to turn the handwheel, lifting the 1” steel balls from the bottom of the feeder tray to the top of a series of rollercoaster style tracks. Once the balls are set into motion, the user can step back and watch them roll, making their way down; compelled by gravity to eventually come to rest


Marble runs and ball machines played a pivotal role in peaking my curiosity about dynamics and how things move. They are fundamental to the toy world and provide hours of entertainment and wonderment. As an adult, I became completely enraptured by pinball machines. That obsession was largely responsible for my undergrad degree in Mechatronics engineering.  When asked to create a permanent installation for the newly renovated Asheville Art Museum’s Art PLAYce, I immediately thought of the marble run. The machine was designed to reflect the capabilities of UNC Asheville’s STEAM Studio and to serve as a beacon for prospective students who might be looking for a college experience that doesn’t look like a traditional classroom.


The machine was designed to fit in an existing alcove, with minimal maintenance. The bottom pan is sloped to passively feed rogue balls back to the manually controlled elevator. Tracks and track components were designed for 1” steel balls. Using the water jet at STEAM studio, we were able to produce hundreds of track clips and Fibonacci inspired mounting brackets and mechanical track switches. 2 Sections of track use plastic clips to electrically isolate the two track rails, the rails are wired in such a way that when the ball is on the track it acts as an electrical switch and flashes on led strips in a rainbow sequence. The final section of track is white oak from UNC Asheville’s campus formed into abstractions of the blue ridge mountains to create a material connection to the university effectively grounding the piece to the region.

Community Connection

Young students in the SkillsSet program were engaged in the design and development stage of the project. This gave the students experience and insight into the design thinking process and engaged them in hands-on building and experimentation. Their involvement on the front end ensured that the final product would be informed by it’s target audience. They visited the art museum to better understand the space and context for the project.