The Student News Site of Carl Sandburg High School



AP Physics classes launch a project to remember

On Friday, November 10, AP Physics 1 classes could be seen congregating on the Circle Drive lawn each period, carrying handmade contraptions and clad in various costumes. Why the array of complicated mechanisms, and – certainly – why the Hawaiian shirts and tutus? 

It was the day that these students would put the pumpkin catapults they had spent weeks planning and constructing to the test.

As soon as each class got outside, physics teacher Mrs. Gattuso laid out on the grass a track with a large “X” made out of blue tape 4 meters down. This marked the target every student was striving for.

One by one, each pair of partners set their catapult down at the start of the track, positioned a small, palm-sized pumpkin on their contraption, and crossed their fingers as they shot the pumpkin through the air to land somewhere along the track. Some went farther than others, but Mrs. Gattuso cheered for every last attempt.

Each student hoped their pumpkin would land on that bold, enticing “X,” so they were given as many trials as they needed to get it at least as near to the target as possible (they were allowed .5 meters of leeway for full points). An added bonus was two additional opportunities to make their projectile land exactly on the “X” for extra credit. 

Students had been instructed to “build a mechanical launcher” that would “launch a pumpkin or gourd a distance of 4 meters and hit a target” per the instruction sheet given to each pair, along with several requirements. The projects had to weigh less than five pounds and not resemble slingshots, and the pumpkin was to be propelled by tension and launched at an angle. Mrs. Gattuso specified that the launcher was to be mechanical and that no more mass could be added to the pumpkin. The use of electricity, chemicals, compressed air, flames, explosives, and other dangerous materials was strictly prohibited as a means of launching the projectile.

Within the assortment of catapults tested were projects of various shapes, sizes, colors, materials, (and, as observed throughout the day, with various success rates). A largely open-ended project like this one would prove to require innovative thinking, so each catapult brought something new to the table.

“There were many different kinds of pumpkin launchers in our class that all did really well,” said Eesha Pathak, a junior in Mrs. Gattuso’s eighth hour class. “It’s all a matter of just what you and your partner can think of together and what is the easiest for you, and there’s not just one way that’ll make it work.”  

This kind of outside-of-the-box thinking appeared to be a prevalent theme in the process of constructing these pumpkin catapults. Students faced roadblocks in the process of both building and testing and searched for innovative ways to overcome them. “The biggest challenge I see – frustration, really – is when the project works beautifully at home and then it doesn’t perform well for the trial,” said Mrs. Gattuso. “And, again, that is a life lesson. It’s a skill to be able to pivot to make changes on the fly to see if you can correct something and give it another go to see if it is better. I think that students need to keep their cool and just try to work through it.”

This sort of challenge arose for Pathak on launch day. Her catapult did not perform as it had during her own trials at home, where it could easily reach the target distance. “Once we spray-painted, we came across another problem because the rubber bands hardened and they dried up and…and did not provide as much…spring as they did before, so when it came time to launch in class they kept snapping,” Pathak recalled.

That’s where problem-solving came in; she and her partner put together a makeshift rubber band bungee mechanism minutes before class ended. “It didn’t end up going the 4 meters,” she stated, “but I still think it was a good way of problem solving in the moment.”

In fact, this part of the process is one of Mrs. Gattuso’s favorite aspects of watching her students’ work play out. “I enjoy seeing students who are able to problem-solve on the fly,” she remarked. Referring to Pathak’s group’s roadblock, she reflected how “pretty much the entire class was there helping them try to figure it out so they could be successful. I really love seeing that sense of community too.”

Challenges resulting in points off were also offset by the exciting opportunity to play dress-up for extra credit. Students were given the option to get decked out in costumes of their choice for several bonus points, so the Circle Drive lawn was taken over by pairs of ballerinas, famous athletes, cowboys, and, in Pathak’s and her friends’ cases, giant inflatable baby costumes. And the students weren’t the only ones benefiting. “Any time the students are enjoying what they are doing is a bonus for me!” Mrs. Gattuso asserted.

8th hour students Maya Evans and Sawsan Al-Khatib go all out for extra credit – Photo courtesy of Mrs. Gattuso

The pumpkin catapult is not the only hands-on project these students take on during the year. “The AP Physics 1 teachers do three projects, [one] every quarter except fourth: Mousetrap, Catapul, and Egg Catcher,” noted Mrs. Gattuso. Classes started off the year with their construction of mousetrap-powered cars, and by the end of the year, they will have progressed to the feat of dropping an egg from the PAC lobby balcony to the ground without cracking it.

Mrs. Gattuso asserted that these intricate, demanding assignments are meant to “get students to think about how to use some of the concepts [they] have been learning in the class to actually design and make something to achieve a specific objective. I think that the problem solving skills that the students come across in the process of making these projects will serve them well wherever their life takes them.” 

I hope students will be able to see that they do not have to solve all their problems on their own and that they should be able to ask for help. That is why I assign it as a partner project,” Mrs. Gattuso continued. “Being able to talk things through with a partner might make you think about something a little differently, and then before you know it—viola! It is done!” She views being able to collaborate with someone as an “important skill” that will come in handy in college and/or the workforce. “When someone is not pulling their weight, you have to be able to let them know in a way that won’t come back to haunt you in the future,” she added. 

Pathak emphasized her positive experience with a partner; in fact, the collaboration was her favorite aspect of the project. She mentioned being the kind of person who loves working with others, and being paired with a friend “was really fun, and it also made the project much more enjoyable because it didn’t feel like a lot of work…it was split amongst an entire group.” The fun did come with a lesson, though: “you have to make sure that you stay focused” when with friends, Pathak pointed out, and “set aside time” to stay on task in order to get the job done.

The daunting projects AP Physics students take on over the course of the year —like this one— serve more than just an academic purpose. Amid the planning, measuring, testing, and calculating was creativity, collaboration, and a great many life lessons learned and laughs and memories made.


More to Discover