Sussex County high school takes top prize at Picatinny pumpkin sling using new ‘walking arm trebuchet’

By Timothy L. RiderOctober 27, 2023

Students catapult pumpkins to develop STEM skills
Picatinny Arsenal holds an annual competition among high schools to catapult pumpkins into a lake as a way to develop their STEM and teamwork skills. This year Sussex County Technical School took top honors with a distance of 283 meters. (Photo Credit: Jesse Glass ) VIEW ORIGINAL

PICATINNY ARSENAL, N.J. -- Using a “walking arm trebuchet” design inspired by a YouTube video, Sussex County Technical School students launched a pumpkin 283 meters on their first launch to win a battle over which high school team could sling a pumpkin farthest into Lake Picatinny.

Students and teachers representing New Providence High School, Parsippany High School, Parsippany Hills High School, Mount Olive High School, Sussex County Technical School, Warren Hills High School, West Orange High School and Easton Area High School (Pennsylvania) matched engineering wits and construction prowess during the competition.

Schools designed, built and conducted tests before bringing a variety of catapult, trebuchet or launcher creations into their competition positions in a parking lot in front of the lake.

Engineers from the Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM) Armaments Center used laser range finders, digital angle measuring tools and trigonometry to calculate the distance from the launching positions to the point where the splash made by the pumpkins was visible.

Just more than three weeks ago, schools were notified of the competition.

“I just happened to be looking and saw this walking arm design on YouTube,” said Sussex Tech engineering instructor Chris Land. Land and welding instructor Josh Conklin marveled at the simplicity of the walking arm design video they said was posted by a teacher in Vermont. The pumpkins were reaching much farther distances than the Sussex school’s best launches. The Sussex County school won last year’s competition with a 160-meter launch.

After 10 students from the welding program and 10 from the engineering program agreed to give the walking arm design a try, the students started the design and build process. They initially met failure. Two previous iterations of the walking arms “got smashed to smithereens,” said Land.

An hours-long review of the slow-motion video of the failed tests taken by the school cinematographers helped Sussex with their final design modifications.

“I hope that whether your team flings the pumpkin the farthest or if it never leaves the parking lot, that you take the opportunity to learn a lot from today’s activities,” said Armaments Center Director, Chris J. Grassano.

The center employs thousands of employees in technical fields and is a long-time supporter STEM education.

“You can learn valuable lessons about engineering, teamwork, cooperation, and really what does it takes to conquer a challenge,” Grassano added. “And none of us is as smart as all of us, right? So we have to work together as a team.”

Each team achieved official measured launches. Notable launches included Warren Hills “Team Impact” topping out at 122 meters and The New Providence “Pumpkineer 2” launcher reaching 90 meters.

The pumpkin slinging contest allows participants to use science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in a fun and competitive way. By building catapults to sling pumpkins, participants use physics and mathematics skills such as linear kinematics, projectile motion, trigonometry and engineering physics.

“The event is more than about how far you can launch a pumpkin, said Sam Joisil, the Picatinny STEM program manager. “It’s about the skills you learn and the relationships you form. Hopefully, some of the skills they used to get here today will inspire them to pursue STEM careers.”

The pumpkin slinging competition, now in its sixth year, is one of many activities that are part of Picatinny’s STEM Educational Outreach Program. Nearly 200 Picatinny scientists and engineers have volunteered to support STEM education. That support includes over 1,000 classroom visits, staffing over 100 educational field trips to Picatinny Arsenal’s working laboratories, assisting nearly 800 teachers and inspiring 50,000 students in over 400 schools.

The STEM program supports public and private schools, colleges and universities with no-cost assistance, professional development training, new instructional equipment, and monetary and advisory support to student robotics teams.

They also offer engineer mentors, sponsorship of student competitions, and opportunities to visit scientists and engineers in their laboratories, where students get a first-hand look at how professionals rise to meet STEM challenges.

This STEM education outreach is custom tailored to meet the specific needs of individual schools. It has already positively impacted tens of thousands of students and hundreds of teachers in New Jersey with knowledge of cutting-edge technologies and the inevitable changes they will bring to education, employment and daily life in the 21st Century. Picatinny’s STEM program has been recognized by the New Jersey State Assembly and Senate of the United States House of Representatives.