Why Physicists Should Build Catapults

I can never contain my excitement for anything really - but catapult launch day is one of my favorite days in Physics class!  There is always so much buzz about it in the class and in the halls.

Check out the free, editable resource that includes the project outline, lab requirements, teacher suggestions and the Google Form I use to mark the project.  It's all available for free at my TpT store.

You should see some of these amazing catapults, trebuchets and ballistas that my Grade 11 students built.  One part of their task was to design, build and calibrate a projectile launcher that could hit various targets.  If the student worked alone they had to hit 2 targets at 4.0 meters and 6.0 meters.  Partners had to hit these two targets and a third target at 8.0 meters.  Three students is the largest group I'd allow and they had to hit four targets - the previous three and 10.0 m.

I keep a theme throughout this course where the students are basically in Jurassic Park (I call it Cretaceous Park to be more accurate and less copyright infringe-y) and trying to survive using their knowledge of Physics, these are the targets they had to hit:
 I printed these off at the local copy center across two tabloid-sized papers, taped them together and laminated them to use year after year.
 I recorded whether students were able to hit the center black area, or the green area to see how well they calibrated their launchers.
 It's far too difficult and dangerous to try and read the actual number they hit.  I'm happy to report that no one was hit by a projectile!
We had these taped down to the cement in our courtyard at the various distances the students needed to hit.

Why should you have your students build things in Physics class:
Learning new skills
Lots of students told me that this project had them learn how to use a drill or a saw (under their parents' supervision of course!)

Time with parents
If there is one thing Physics students want, it's marks - how do you get those marks?  By learning and working with your parents, apparently.

Ability to persevere
It's a big project with lots of complications, but the kids are motivated to see it through.

Ability to problem solve
So your catapult doesn't hit 4.0 meters?  Students didn't get any sympathy from me, but we did have a chat about changing factors and they all were able to figure it out.

Learn to calibrate
They probably have never had to calibrate anything before to achieve consistent results.  They would have to problem solve and test in order to hit the targets on launch day.

Learn to time manage
This is not a project that can be done in a day.  Students use Google Docs to track their progress and I can check in on them to see how they were progressing.  What a great real-world skill to develop!

Learn to work with others (or not)
Some students choose to work with others, and that's great!  They'll experience division of labor and cost.  Their workload is proportionally greater as they need to hit additional targets.  Some students chose to work alone, and they'll experience a different side of project management.

Create a reproducible test
In addition to the target shooting portion, I have the students design, implement and write a formal lab report for an inquiry question of their choosing.  They need to design their own test in order to achieve reproducible results and discuss the reading, random and systematic errors associated with the design of their lab.

Get ready for engineering courses
Gosh, wouldn't it be horrible if a student went into engineering without having ever built anything?  Hmm.. they probably wouldn't even have an interest in engineering if they have never tinkered with something.

In addition to this, as the number of Physics students ebbs and flows, I love the buzz the catapult project creates within the school!  Students, teachers and administration come down to watch the target shooting portion.  Whole classes toured our classroom to get a closer look at the catapult designs, and even watched the longest shot competition from their windows.  What a great way to get more students interested in Physics!

I want to share with you the outline I use for the project, the lab report, some suggestions and even the Google Form I use to assess the project.  It's all available for free at my TpT store.  Click to check it out! 
When it comes down to it, whatever your students are building - catapults, hover crafts, or Pan flutes - they are gaining valuable experience far beyond how to solve math problems!

1 comment

  1. This is amazing. I am going to adapt to use with a Year 10 Applied Science class. Thank you so much for sharing!!!


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