Once upon a time, catapults were standard fare in many small towns. You couldn’t lay siege to a Carthaginian stronghold or Medieval castle without one. Now the world settles its differences in other ways. It might surprise you, therefore, to learn that there is an active catapult-building effort at Verona High School and the students are really good at it. So good, in fact that they beat 18 other teams from high schools, colleges and first responders competing at in a South Jersey catapult contest late last month.
Simone Conforti, a VHS junior, is a member of the 50-member VHS Engineering Club and captain of one of the two teams that Verona fielded at this year’s 16th annual Rowan University Pumpkin Chunkin Competition. Going into it, Conforti thought VHS’ chances were, well, a toss up. Her team’s catapult, which had failed to even place at last year’s competition, had been too tall to store in the shed behind VHS and had suffered substantial weather damage. “We had to take off a lot of wood, and put a lot on,” she says, “and then we had to do a lot of recalculations.”
There’s a lot of math and physics behind a good catapult and, when the club did its test firing in October on the upper field at VHS, some of both was clearly wrong. “All the test shots went backwards,” Conforti said. Her team, DC Legends of Tomorrow, made an adjustment to the catapult’s sling to reduce friction. Then both rigs were loaded into a rented box truck and the teams headed south, hoping for the best.
By now, you’re probably wondering why high school students are creating catapults when there is so much else going on at VHS and so little demand for siege engines. For Jason Atkins, the technology, engineering and design teacher who leads the club, it is a broad introduction to all aspects of building, from design to construction, and a launching pad for college studies in engineering and architecture. Atkins, who has been at VHS for three years, got an undergraduate degree in biology and then a master of architecture from the State University of New York at Buffalo and is LEED AP certified, which signifies expertise in the construction of environmentally friendly buildings.
Under Atkins’ lead, Engineering Club students are gaining exposure to all aspects of engineering. The old woodshop that many VHS alumns remember on the east side of the school now has an adjacent computer lab, where students can explore the pros and cons of different designs before they ever bring a piece of wood to the band saw. The winning team’s design is technically a floating-arm trebuchet. “When they did research,” says Atkins, “they found out that it was one of the most efficient machines.”
But a winning design isn’t just a matter of theoretical efficiency. The team members–Conforti, plus Caitlin McKeown, Maegan Kuhlmann, Jasmine Mickens, Emilia Stopka, Selin Hekimgil, Chris Lakin and honorary member Dashiell Greenberg–had laminated several layers of wood together to re-make the machine’s arm this year, and then had to strategically rout it to reduce the piece’s weight while maintaining its strength. With the finished catapult weighing more than 400 pounds, they also had to design a transportation system to get it on and off the field at Rowan.
“They spent 200 hours on the build,” Atkins says of the team. “There are very few things in high school that you put in 200 hours on.”
Conforti doesn’t regret even an hour of the work. “We did lots of research,” she says. “If we didn’t, we would have accomplished nothing.”
At the end of the semifinals on Friday, October 26, what Verona had accomplished was second place. Then Verona tied for first in the finals with Millville High School, a school that has STEM-driven construction in its curriculum, not just as a club. To break the tie and determine a winner, the teams had to take their best shot at 400 feet. Millville ramped up its counterweight from 250 pounds to 500. Verona, which had been using a 400-pound weight, went up only to 420. “They knew that small changes can have a big impact,” Atkins says of the team.
And big changes have even bigger impacts. With the tension on the field palpable, Millville’s throw went awry when the arm on its machine bent under the increased counterweight. Verona’s throw went off without a hitch, and Conforti’s team took home immense bragging rights and a 3-D printer. A second VHS team, 9th Legion, led by VHS junior Gerald Madjarov, took third place, edging out a second Millville team. “Gerry really put a lot of effort into this competition,” Atkins says, “doing most of the work on his catapult alone, and stopping at several points to help anyone else in need.”
Despite the big win, Verona won’t be making catapult-building part of the regular technology, engineering and design (TED) curriculum. “Presently, we have one TED teacher at HBW, Julia Harth Zambrano, and one TED teacher at VHS, Jason,” says Charlie Miller, director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment for Verona public schools. “Julia and Jason do not have any room in their present teaching schedules to work on catapults. They both have clubs so that students who are interested in furthering their engineering experiences can come after school often to work on catapults and other engineering designs.” (If you want to see the full range of TED classes in Verona, there’s a list on the district’s website; MyVeronaNJ.com has also reported on the catapult building at H.B. Whitehorne Middle School.)
With their pumpkin chunkin days over for this year, the VHS Engineering Club is focusing two new projects: Building a hovercraft (no, we’re not sure where that will be tested) and the Paradigm Challenge, a national competition that invites students to solve real-life engineering problems for a chance at a substantial scholarship. This year’s challenge is to create something that can prevent a fire or help people to escape one safely, which seems more than timely.
When Conforti joined the Engineering Club two years ago, she had thought her future might involve graphic design or video editing. Now, she has her eyes on bigger projects. “The club taught me how to be creative and how how to work with tools,” she says. “Through this work, I’ve realized that I would love to do architecture and building.”