Pumpkin Physics in Flight

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Physics took flight during a recent trebuchet demonstration by the high school’s pumpkin-chucking Dark Falcons. The 20-student team – ranging from eighth-graders to seniors – and coach Bruce Sander were providing the educational show on the school’s football field for the benefit of physics teacher Ted Smirlis’ class, who would later provide feedback for the team.

“Our intention was to have the students relate real-life design and the physics that affect this trebuchet’s throwing capacity,” explained Sander, a technology teacher who has shepherded the pumpkin program for six years, earning a championship in 2013 while ensuring his students learn math, physics and engineering concepts.

Their trebuchet, a kind of catapult, reached a milestone earlier in the fall during the Pumpkin Fling, Long Island’s annual championship pumpkin catapult contest, hurling the gourd 1,056 feet at 150 mph. “The pumpkin went so fast that the paint blew off the pumpkin,” said Sander. Alas, they did not repeat as champs at the event, held in October at the Suffolk County Farm and Education Center in Yaphank. “We wound up with second place, because during our third throw, for distance, the sling broke,” said Sander. “Our throw of 1,056 feet was during our final throw, for accuracy not distance. So even though we beat the winning throw of 915 feet, it didn't count towards the win. But we know we still threw over 1,000 feet, which had been a goal of our team for years.”

Sander and his Dark Falcons are already planning for autumn 2015. “We are constructing a newly designed machine for next year’s competition that will incorporate all of the suggestions from the physics students and our own knowledge of building this type of machine. Next year’s goal is to exceed 1,800 feet.”