Mt. Olive High School's trebuchet

Got a Jack-O-Lantern that’s past its prime? In the story below, Rose Eveleth reports on one creative way of tossing it.

David Bodmer is the Robotics Engineering teacher at Mt. Olive High School in Flanders, New Jersey. Every year he leads a team of students in a nation-wide robotics competition. But last year they started a new project: tossing pumpkins. His team of students built a trebuchet, a type of catapult used to breach castle walls in the middle ages, to launch a pumpkin 548 feet. And this year, they're at it again, upping their distance to 959 feet. The team, lead by student Matt Dunster, headed down to Delaware last week to compete in the Punkin Chunkin contest. Here's what they had to say about the project and the contest.


How did you get started chucking pumpkins?

DAVID: I found out about it last year through [a colleague]. We started working on it in June and went to a contest in New Jersey where we won with a distance of 548 feet. This year is the first year we're going down to the official Delaware event, and Matt started working on building in August.


What's your design like?

MATT: It's a floating arm trebuchet. Pretty much, if you look at a normal catapult, the weights go in an arching motion. On this the weights fall in a straight line. So when the weight gets to the halfway point, it starts pivoting on two wheels and that's what creates the rotational effect. We figured out some improvements from last year by raising our counterweights higher, which took some work. You can't just look up on Google how to improve your trebuchet, so we had to figure out how to do it ourselves.


How far do you hope the pumpkin will go?

MATT: Last year we hit 548 feet. This year, at the last contest we reached 959, but we think we can break 1,000. The current record is 800, so we'll at least try to beat that record, but I think we can break 1,000.


What does it take to start a project like this at a school?

DAVID: You have to have students that are excited about it, a faculty member that's excited about it, and parents and mentors that are willing to help out. It takes more than just one person, or even a small group. You have to have a lot of people who are excited to try it and understand that there's a big learning curve. It's definitely fun, but you have to have the people all willing to put the time and effort in.


What are the students learning from the trebuchet project?

DAVID: For this project we have a team of about 30 people, and our full robotics team is about 100 students. To get that many people to look past their own thoughts, is a life lesson of being able to listen to what other people have to say.


MATT: What I'm learning is about real life projects. In school you're sitting at a lab table with a controlled five-minute experiment, like adding baking soda and vinegar together. This is real life. It's going on for a while, we're seeing a large result, and we get to see that finished products take a while. In the real world it's not a five-minute project at a lab table, you're working on things for days, weeks, months, maybe years. And we're learning to work with students of different ages, likes and dislikes, ideas, and seeing how people come together.


You can learn more about the Mount Olive Robotics Team (MORT) and their trebuchet at their website. And check the results from the Punkin Chunkin contest to see how they do!