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Pumpkin launch teaches Watsonville students about energy, teamwork

Modified: Thursday, Nov 15th, 2012

Watsonville High physics students team up to launch pumpkins with their homemade trebuchets Thursday. (Photos by Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian)

WATSONVILLE — A catapult-like device called a trebuchet — nicknamed Tyrone by five Watsonville High School seniors — dominated the early rounds of the annual pumpkin launch at one of the sports fields at the high school Thursday morning.

At one point, Team Tyrone added weight plates to the bottom of the trebuchet’s launch arm, bringing the total to a whopping 90 pounds. The five-member team then made some other adjustments, stepped back, pulled the trigger and watched as their duct-taped pumpkin sailed high and far, landing unbroken just over 28 meters away on the grass, near the feet of physics teacher Stephen Buchter.

Students only needed to hit the 10-meter mark for an A.

After much trial and error, one of the big secrets to Tyrone’s launch was a small one: adjusting the angle on the swing release, which is the nail at the end of the long arm that holds the swing, said senior Salvador Medina.

Another plus for Team Tyrone was Medina himself. He was one of the few students with trebuchet experience, as he'd help build and operate one when he was in 8th grade and part of the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement club.

“We learned through experience,” Medina said, describing some of the trebuchet adjustments he made in 8th grade.

A trebuchet resembles a catapult, which were used in the Middle Ages to knock down castle walls during a siege.

Building the devices teaches students about the transfer of energy, hinged weights and tests their construction and teamwork skills, Buchter said.

“It’s an experiment in energy,” he said. “You’ve got potential energy changing into kinetic energy. The kids have been studying energy, and this is a project to make them realize what’s going on. “

Students and observers had to be careful where they stood during the experiment. More than one team inadvertently launched their gourds backwards, up and over the chain link fence and onto the tennis courts. Pumpkin shrapnel from exploded gourds could be seen on much of the nearest court.

There was also a healthy amount of sarcasm and ribbing between the teams. As the squad led by juniors Ileana Konviser and Nicole Ramon got ready for another launch after their first sent the gourd backward to the tennis court, a boy on the team next to them said, "This is going to end in tragedy. But I wish you luck."

A few stations down, Team Tyrone was proud of their launch, but they are far from the school record for pumpkin launching. Medina said a team last year set the record of 50-something meters.

“Their trebuchet was about three times the size of ours," he said.

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