Beauregard High School physics class smashes pumpkins, learns about projectile motion

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By Fred Woods
Editor

Early one morning last week in a field beside Beauregard High School, pumpkins filled the air as a dozen BHS students test-fired their catapults in preparation for … (laying siege to the school?) No! Filling the air with pumpkins was the objective as Mrs. Rachel Brown’s AP Physics class met the requirements of an assignment designed to reinforce the concept of projectile motion.
Individuals or groups of two students were to build a catapult that would launch a pumpkin for a distance of at least six feet.  Some parental assistance was allowed.There were two requirements for the catapults:  (1) each catapult had to shoot a pumpkin at least 6 feet (the students far exceeded this requirement) and (2) the device had to be able to launch more than once.   There were two categories of catapults.  For safety’s sake, the larger catapults had to have a triggering mechanism which allowed the release of the pumpkin from outside the launch box.  This was not a requirement for the smaller catapults.
The purpose of the project was to design and build a catapult that would launch a pumpkin as far as possible given the size of the catapult.  Students were required to use the information they gathered during the test-firing including the distance traveled, the projectile’s launch angle and the time of flight to find the velocity of the pumpkin when fired.  The project was done to reinforce the concept of projectile motion which will help the students when they take their AP exams next spring.
The six or eight catapults ranged in size from roughly a small desk to car-size. Propulsion devices ranged from bungee cords to automobile leaf springs. And, as students found out, size did not necessarily equate to distance. As Chris Shewtchenko explained, the launch angle is critical. Somewhere around 45 degrees is ideal. Much less and your pumpkin may go almost straight up; much more and it will slam into the ground in front of your catapult.
The largest catapult, Derek Hyder’s, was designed around a truck chassis and featured the truck’s leaf springs as its propulsion device. It launched the furthest, sending its pumpkin projectile 90 feet down the way. The Healey brothers, Aaron and Dallan, with a slightly smaller, mostly wooden catapult, sent their pumpkin 50 feet. Nidia Gonzalez built the smallest, a little bit bigger than a bread box, but it worked fine.
As Mrs. Brown said, this way of learning is a lot more effective than anything I could show them in the classroom. Who said learning couldn’t be fun?
The 12 members of the class, 11 seniors and a junior, are Lauren Averhart, Austin Burdell, Nydia Gonzalez, Aaron Healey, Dallan Healey,Derek Hyder, Reba Lanier, Trevor May, Brandon Ray, Chris Shewtchenko, Micah Sollie, and Dorothy Stewart. Mrs. Brown says this class easily ranks among her better ones, she said if they were all like this one, teaching wouldn’t even seem like a job.

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