Broadcom Volunteers Gear Up to Flex Engineering, Physics Know-How in Pumpkin Projectile Contest

Fall in Orange County brings the typical seasonal delights: shorter days, color-changing leaves and (finally!) sweater weather.

But for some locals, it also brings another unusual sight: Hundreds of pumpkins sailing across a grassy field, propelled by giant catapults. The flying gourds — which weigh between two and 10 pounds and soar distances between 100 and 300 feet – are the highlight of the annual Discovery Science Center’s Pumpkin Launch Contest.

This year, a cadre of Broadcom engineers will be on hand to help with the construction of miniature versions of the launching devices. A group from the Broadcom Women’s Network, an internal network of professionals at the company, will be offering engineering and physics skills to middle- and high-school students attending the annual event this week.[cf-shortcode plugin=”generic” field=”brcm_links_right”]

Krithika Krishnarajan, a senior staff engineer of software quality assurance in the Broadband Communications Group at Broadcom, spent a recent weekend chasing down materials for the company’s booth. At the Broadcom booth, event-goers will be invited to test their engineering, physics and math skills by constructing their own marshmallow-launching mini-catapults.

“It should be a fun event but the goal also is to make sure the participants understand the basic physics of the pumpkin launcher,” she said. “This includes velocity, speed, counter-weights, and so on.”

pumpkin launcher
A pumpkin launcher primed for action at last year’s Discovery Science Center event.

The chance to build a catapult, or a trebuchet – “siege” devices dating back to the 12th Century that relied on a counter-weight system to propel boulders over long distances – is an ideal means of sparking an interest in engineering in children and teens, said Paul Pooler, Director of Education at the Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana, co-host of the event.

“Each variable will have a hand in determining the speed and accuracy of the pumpkin,” Pooler said. “These variables include force, wind resistance, and trajectory, to name a few.”

Pooler has developed the specifications for the pumpkin launch contest since it started five years ago. While the contest is all in good fun, the science and engineering principals behind it are the core focus of the day, he said.

About the Competition

There will be 15 teams comprised of middle- and high-school students from local schools, and workers from local businesses competing for the revered SP3D.  While hurling winter squash through the air is sure to impress the judges, the goal is to achieve pinpoint accuracy by hitting a standup target consistently. Contestants are chasing both bragging rights and the coveted first prize trophy, called the “Supreme Powered Pumpkin Projectile Device,” or SP3D.

The Nov. 2nd event, co-sponsored by the Discovery Science Center and the College of Engineering and Computer Science at California State University, Fullerton, also features hands-on games and contests for children and teens, a medieval showcase, and a range of family-friendly, science-oriented “edutainment” activities. The Broadcom Foundation is a supporter of the Discovery Science Center and has partnered with the children’s science museum for other events, including this year’s Iron Man 3: Inventor and Innovator Fair.

Other booths will offer opportunities to build flotation devices – and compete to see if their boats, made of foil, can carry marbles and remain afloat.

Fly, Pumpkin, Fly!

After searching on the Internet, Broadcom’s Krishnarajan found a catapult schematic that billed itself as being suitable for “a six year old to understand.”  She bought some flat planks of wood, metal hinges, heavy tape, and other materials. And along with her six year-old son, she got to work on building a scaled-down projectile launcher.

“I tried to make it simple,” She said. “My son was very excited to be involved in building it with me.”

The final result had yet to be determined a few days before the big event. But, Krishnarajan was confident that she and her son would at least nail down the basic concepts of building a successful pumpkin launcher.

“It would be nice to be on the team that wins the contest,” she said. “But my goal will be to make sure that the children and teenagers who come to our booth understand the science involved. As long as they get the concepts and principles, their level of skill will improve.”