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The physics of flying squash

Students apply what they learn in science class into catapulting pumpkins

Students participated in a unique event at Shaker High School on Friday, Oct. 28 and Monday, Oct. 31, where they launched pumpkins into the air and competed for who could launch theirs the furthest. Students were not given any specifics of what type of launcher to build except that the pumpkin had to travel more than five meters.

Students participated in a unique event at Shaker High School on Friday, Oct. 28 and Monday, Oct. 31, where they launched pumpkins into the air and competed for who could launch theirs the furthest. Students were not given any specifics of what type of launcher to build except that the pumpkin had to travel more than five meters. Photo by Andrew Beam.

— Shaker High School students get to learn about projectile motion in very unique way: by building a device to launch a pumpkin into the air and as far as it can go.

Science teachers Christine Nolett and Pamela Rossi partnered together four years ago to facilitate this project. They felt it would be a fun to apply what the students learn in physics classes to the real world instead of just learning from a textbook.

The students were put into groups and not given any instructions on what particular device they should build to launch the pumpkins. Rossi said they were told to build whatever they wanted. The students had to find all of their own materials to build a device, though many of them had never even used a power tool.

“We tried to convince them to use scrap things around the house and come up and be as creative as they can with spending as little money as they can, preferably,” Rossi said. “But we don’t give them anything. We give them a pumpkin weight, though, of about four-and-a-half pounds. It can be more.”

The activity teaches students how to work as a team and not only think for themselves, Nolett said. For the physics portion of the competition, the students must calculate the maximum height the pumpkin achieved, the initial velocity as it left the launcher and the angle that it launched from.

“We measure out the length it went and we time the amount of time in the air,” Nolett said. “With those two things they are able to find out all of their initial velocities and maximum heights.”

Rossi said the groups are also tasked with creating model drawings of what their launcher will look like from the top, front and side views. Then the students have to write an essay on how they constructed their launcher and how their project turned out.

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