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Rising High School Seniors Explore Interests in Engineering & Science During Operation Catapult

July 1, 2011

Shoes, socks and cell phones were piled up on the beach at Speed Lake on the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology campus.  "Tie your shoelaces!" advised Operation Catapult Director Patsy Brackin to water walker Haley Bowyer, a visiting high school senior from Chrisman, Ill.

  Walking On Water: Haley Bowyer of Chrisman, Ill., demonstrated the treadmill-style device that her team developed to successfully walk across Speed Lake on the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology campus.

Bowyer was perched on her team's project in the middle of the body of water.  She propelled the machine by walking on a tire, treadmill-style, which drove a bicycle chain that turned a wooden paddle wheel.  But her untied shoelaces were a potential safety hazard.  So, the laces secured, Bowyer resumes her trek across the lake to the beach, where she received a series of high-fives from onlookers and teammates.

The successful project demonstration concluded the first session of Rose-Hulman's Operation Catapult.  Now in its 45th year, the program gives teenagers an opportunity to complete hands-on projects, attend lectures on a variety of topics, participate in field trips to examine real-world discoveries by engineers and scientists, and experience life on a college campus.  The projects gave students the opportunity to explore new, exciting and innovative areas of engineering and science.

A total of 132 students from 24 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico worked in teams to create a Frisbee throwing machine and a human body resistance machine, used embedded microcontrollers to build Smart machines, learned the Python computer software language to create computer games, and built model hovercrafts and submarines.  Another 16-day session is scheduled to begin on July 10.

Education In Motion: Matthew Heartney, Nina Jimenez, Sarah Lawson and Mitch Hollander demonstration the mechanical snake that the team developed during the first Operation Catapult session.  

Three project teams came up with different ways to walk on water.  Besides the treadmill-style device developed by Bowyer and her team, another was powered by two persons, through a hamster-wheel type of mechanism in which the students were literally inside the machine, powering it across the lake.  Other team members help steer and propel the device with makeshift paddles.

The double water wheel craft also arrived successfully to shore to the cheers of onlookers, and team members Eric Brower, Ethan Hughes, Gunnar Horve and David Siceluff.  Brower explained that the team began by researching water-walking machines.  "The very first day we were looking on YouTube," said Brower, a senior from Madison, Ala.  When they found videos of a similar machine, the team took the concept and adapted it.  "It was kind of a cool design, and a really easy transfer of energy, but we didn't want to do the same thing," he explained.

Each project team worked within a $50 budget for supplies or find leftover supplies on -- or both.  Thanks to assistance from college officers, Brower's team didn't spend a dime of its budget, joking that they planned to celebrate their successful project by spending the surplus on snacks.  "We're gonna party with some Klondike Bars and Red Bull," he laughed.

Catapult2011-balancing    Catapult2011-snaketeam
Balancing Act: Dexter Willis of Fort Wayne, Ind., works to solve a last-minute problem in his team's electrical Quadrotor balancing device during Operation Catapult.
     Colorful Project: Monya Wolf, Katie Gamble and Lyndsey Stoick are proud of the mechanical snake that they created during the first Operation Catapult session.



Teammate David Siceluff of Houston, Texas, commented that Operation Catapult group projects differ from a traditional school group projects in that students are allowed to work independently.

"With this you get to choose what you do, and you literally have to find a way to do it," Siceluff explains, adding, "It was really cool, the freedom we had."

Successful Team: Creating a model hovercraft that completed an obstacle course test was the team of (from left) Joe McConaughy, Bryan Duerfeldt, Nathan Hui and Gary Newell.  

Elsewhere on campus, five model hovercraft teams prepared for their own demonstrations on the next to last day of the first session.  Drag races tested the machines for speed while an obstacle course offered a test for control.

Most of the hovercrafts were of a similar design, built primarily from foam insulation board.  Each team received an identical motor and propeller, forcing them to attempt to gain advantage by designing other aspects of the craft.  One of the most influential components of the hovercraft design was the skirt which provided a cushion of air on which the craft skimmed across the floor.

"In order to create lift you need to have holes to allow air to be pushed underneath the vehicle.  It's floating on a cushion of air," explained hovercraft builder Nathan Hui, from Santa Clara, Calif.  "Our skirt went through a ton of modification," added teammate Bryan Duerfeldt of Minneapolis, Minn.

The team's hovercraft was whimsically named "El Tigre" and sported a hand-painted tiger-stripe motif.  Three rudders helped steer the craft, enabling the operators to easily control it, but the added weight of some of the projects features meant that it wasn't as fast as some of the others.


Catching Up With Project: Kelsey Gibboney of Cincinnati, Ohio, runs to catch a Frisbee thrown from a mechanical device created with teammates Austin Alexander, Tommy Mulc and Tanner Gauler.

Considering what they might have done differently, team member Joseph McConaughy noted, "In a lot of cases we made trade-offs between speed and stability."

In front of all Operation Catapult participants, "El Tigre" successfully glided through the course in 6.90 seconds, under the watchful eyes and hands of Duerfeldt at the remote control.

Trial and error -- learning what works and what doesn't work -- are all part of the Operation Catapult experience, according to Brackin, a professor of mechanical engineering.  Each project had a faculty mentor.  Along the way the students not only learn valuable problem-solving skills, but experience the kind of hands-on learning opportunities and supportive environment which make Rose-Hulman unique in undergraduate engineering education.

Learn more about the Operation Catapult program by clicking here