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Illinois Institute of Technology students build catapults to toss pumpkins

Published: Monday, Oct. 14, 2013 10:20 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — October is a time for pumpkin abuse.

But plain old carving of jack-o-lanterns just does not cut it for students at the Illinois Institute of Technology —a hub for future engineers, architects and computer scientists.

Every year, dozens of students from different disciplines at the university compete to design and build machines that throw pumpkins the farthest and most accurately.

During the ninth annual Pumpkin Launch held on Saturday at the Ed Glancy Baseball Field, about 100 students worked to build 12 structures for pumpkin launching. That's the most participants in the event's history, said Christen Deanes, president of Biomedical Engineering Society and a biomedical engineering senior at IIT.

Groups of several students took anywhere between a few days to a couple of months to construct slingshots, wooden trebuchets (catapults) and robotic launchers for the competition. Each machine got three chances to show off its power.

IIT's Biomedical Engineering Society's students came up with the idea for the contest about nine years ago during a brainstorming session, Deanes said.

"It started out small, and it became this tradition," said Deanes.

Over the years, the event expanded and organizers set a few rules for the projects.

"Every year, there is always someone who wants to do some sort of explosion," said Carlo Segre, IIT physics professor and co-organizer. But using a cannon-like structure to shoot a pumpkin is off limits.

The height of the machine is also limited, said Segre, who was watching over the safety of the event along with other professors. No one was injured as a result of a pumpkin toss on Saturday, he said.

Two mechanical engineering seniors, Jake Passini and Patrick Porosky, took the first place in the distance category with their machine, tossing their pumpkin 361 feet across the field on the first try.

The two friends started the work on the project during the summer and named themselves "Long Shot," joking between themselves that it would be unlikely for them to win anything.

"It was supposed to be ironic," said Porosky, who shared a gold medal and $200 in prize money with Passini. "And now we won."

The swings of their 18-foot-tall floating arm trebuchet, armed with two 120-pound cement buckets on either side and three 75-pound tractor weights for counterbalance, were met with "ahhs" from dozens of audience members.

"It's so inspirational," said Porosky, looking back at the competition and the work he and Passini were able to accomplish. "If you wanna build anything, just design it and make it." Porosky said that a year ago he would not have been able to build the same structure, crediting the classes at IIT that taught him his skills.

He said that the design of the catapult was inspired by a similar, smaller structure that he had to build in a class along with other students.

"It was very time consuming but fun," Porosky said, adding that he hopes to participate in the contest again next year.

Porosky and Passini said they plan to bring their structure back to where it was built, on a field in rural Illinois a few hours away from Chicago. Passini said that they may even sell it to a pumpkin patch. 

But not every one was as successful at tossing the orange fruit.

One catapult threw their pumpkin backward twice. One machine shot the pumpkin straight into the air. And one launcher broke during one of the tests.

Bob Mitchell, 68, Aurora resident, was one of the spectators clapping when pumpkins were propelled high into the air and smashed with a distinctive squishy thump.

"Pumkin Chunkin" is a bunch of fun," said Mitchell. "These students put a lot of heart and soul into their machines."

Mitchell came to cheer on his grandson Al Mitchell, who was on a team that built one of the launchers, along with Al's brother and his cousin.

Unfortunately, Al Mitchell and his friends' catapult broke right before the competition started. The long wooden beam, or arm, that was supposed to throw a pumpkin twisted and snapped in half during a second test shot on Saturday.

"It's a little disappointing," said Al Mitchell, adding that the machine threw chugs filled with water about 15 different times without a problem the night before the competition. "It worked on paper. But this is the real world."

Mitchell, a mechanical engineering freshman at IIT, said that he and about five of his friends put the structure together five days before the event in the backyard of his fraternity house.

"I didn't sleep at all this week," said Mitchell, adding that he was eager to participate in the event since he was accepted into IIT.

But he said he's excited to compete in the contest again next year and improve on the machine's design.

"I'm a boy," Mitchell said. "Boys just like to blow up stuff."

Other winners

Distance First: Team Long Shot with 361 feet Second: Team Keep on Chunkin' with 205 feet Third: Team NSBE with 172 feet

Accuracy First: Team Mach 1 with 99 percent Second: Team Keep on Chunkin' with 96.7 percent Third: Long Shot with 95 percent

Crowd Favorite Team Dirty Winches, whose members came dressed up as pirates

(c)2013 the Chicago Tribune Distributed by MCT Information Services

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