High School, Middle School Students Sling Their Way to Victory in Trebuchet Competition

April 2010 By

OXFORD, Miss. - Normally tennis balls volley back and forth on the court, but Thursday afternoon, they were being catapulted in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium at the University of Mississippi.

The School of Engineering hosted the fourth-annual Gravity-Driven Catapult (Trebuchet) Hurling Competition. Middle and high school students from across Mississippi were invited to design and construct trebuchets and bring them to campus to test their engineering skills. Trebuchets, which originated as medieval engines of war, use a counterweight to propel projectiles at targets.

In the UM competition, students designed and constructed trebuchets of metal, wood and PVC to hurl fluorescent tennis balls across the field. Registering for the event were 11 teams representing nine schools: Paul D. Armstrong Middle School of Starkville, Charleston High School, French Camp Academy, Leflore County Vocational-Technical School, Northwest Rankin High School, Oxford High School, Saltillo High School, South Panola High School and Starkville High School.

Engineers from the Mississippi Department of Transportation's Batesville office and GE Aviation weighed and measured the catapults to make sure specifications were met. Catapults not meeting specs either had to be modified or were penalized points for not meeting the criteria.

"It would be difficult to disqualify a team of students that has put so much effort and time into constructing a trebuchet," said Maxine Woolsey, educational outreach specialist in the School of Engineering and coordinator of the event. "I would rather see engineering in action as the students redesign and modify their hurling machine to fall within the requirements."

Ole Miss engineering students and Oxford High School physics teacher Jim Reidy engineered a moving wall that extended 35 feet high, using PVC pipe, paint poles, a net, rope and a lot of duct tape. The engineering students measured the distance and height of each throw and calculated scores.

"There were some very well-designed trebuchets, and we saw some record performances for the competition," said Alissa Carroll, a senior mechanical engineering major from Kingwood, Texas, who has volunteered to help with the competition since its inception. "It's always exciting to see these high school and middle school students see the engineer within themselves."

First-, second- and third-place trophies were presented in the categories of accuracy, design, distance, height and cost efficiency. The Cost Efficiency Award, in keeping with the "green movement," was created this year to reward teams building trebuchets with the lowest cost per foot of hurling distance.

Scores for all participants ranged from 52 cents to $3.28 per foot. Trophies went to students from French Camp Academy, Northwest Rankin High School, Armstrong Middle School and Starkville High School.

Josh Parkerson, a senior at French Camp Academy, said he plans to study chemical engineering at Ole Miss this fall.

"I started entering the trebuchet competition three years ago because it looked like it would be fun," Parkerson said. "It is fun, but it is also challenging. I received a lot of encouragement from my older brother, Joey, who graduated from Ole Miss last year."

Before the day's final competitive event, participants faced off in preliminaries and made adjustments to their catapults. Sometimes, the machines broke during this process.

"It is impressive to see the tools come out and students making repairs to get their machine up and hurling again," Woolsey said."That is what the engineering experience is all about."

Armstrong Middle School took home four trophies, including two for first in both cost efficiency and accuracy. French Camp Academy and Northwest Rankin High School were first-place winners in design and distance, respectively. Starkville High School won first place in height.

Second-place winners were Starkville in distance, accuracy and cost efficiency categories, Armstrong in height and Northwest Rankin in design. Placing third were Armstrong in distance, Starkville in cost efficiency, height and design, and French Camp in accuracy.

Much of the event's success stems from the interaction between high school students and UM engineering students, she said.

Matt Herring, a sophomore electrical engineering major from Oxford, believes the catapult project encourages students to think and use the engineering design process.

"It is a good introduction to engineering and gives the students opportunities to design and construct catapults with basic specifications," Herring said. "Then they get to bring that catapult to the Ole Miss football stadium to test it."

In medieval times, trebuchets were more accurate than other catapults, which used tension or torsion to fire projectiles. In modern times, trebuchets have become popular devices for hurling pumpkins, frozen turkeys or even junk cars in light-spirited competitions.

Sponsors for the competition included the UM School of Engineering, Mississippi Engineering Society, GE Aviation, MDOT, Center for Math and Science Education, University Sporting Goods and The Trophy Shop.

For more information about the School of Engineering, visit engineering.olemiss.edu