Richard the Lionheart used them to invade Muslim lands during the Crusades of the Middle Ages. Central Valley junior high and high school students used them to invade Fresno State’s South Gym on Saturday.
Trebuchets, weapons of castle destruction similar to catapults, became instruments of hands-on learning during a competition hosted by the Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement (MESA) Schools Program.
Fresno Stateâ€™s engineering department is the local sponsor of the statewide MESA Schools Program.
â€œMESA is about promoting kids to be involved in science, engineering, technology; to make them see itâ€™s not just a bunch of writing on the board, doing bookwork,â€ said Harim Martinez, a MESA volunteer who has been involved since he was an engineering undergraduate at Fresno State.
Martinez said that the trebuchet competition was partly about teaching students
how to approach failure as an opportunity to learn. He said that figuring out what works and what does not is an important skill in life, not just engineering.
â€œOnce youâ€™re out of school, out in the real world, this is kind of the things you deal with on a day-to-day basis,” he said.
The trebuchets seen on Saturday showcased students’ experimentation. One looked like it had been made from a giant Erector set. Most used pull-strings to launch, but some used battery-powered firing systems. Weights were fashioned from diverse materials like sledgehammer heads and rubber-coated purple dumbbells.
Students launched their trebuchets one at a time toward carefully spaced tape markers on the gym’s floor. Unlike the medieval war machines, these trebuchets averaged knee-height and fired hacky sacks, not severed heads of enemy soldiers.
Joseph Garrett, a senior at Herbert Hoover High School in Fresno, said “We actually used Teflon on the axle to decrease friction so it goes farther, and we have the metal plate that decreases friction as the projectile gets launched into the air.” Garrett said his team’s trebuchet took an estimated 10 to 15 hours to build and 18 to 20 hours to test and adjust.
â€œFor the accuracy, we wanted to shoot for the 10-meters, and the [trebuchet] that was working outside went 15 meters, so just that simple variation of just being outside changed [things],â€ Garrett said.
In addition to building the trebuchets so they adhere to set guidelines, students must prepare supporting materials to present to the judges.
â€œThroughout the year, students work on their technical paper, oral presentation, academic display and device performance tasks in preparation for this,â€ Fresno State MESA Schools Program Director Louie Lopez said.
He said that the winners of Saturdayâ€™s preliminary competition would go on to compete at regionals, held at UC Santa Barbara. State championships are scheduled for May 10 at Fresno State, with June national championships in Maryland.
Both Garrett and Martinez encouraged Fresno State students to get involved with MESA. Garrett said that innate skill at math and science was not necessary to be a part of the organization.
â€œPeople are afraid — intimidated — and they shouldnâ€™t be,â€ he said.
Volunteering with MESA provides a chance to reach out to students from poorer areas who may not have had a chance for much hands-on experience, Martinez said.
“To them, even graduating high school is an accomplishment, so when they come to our program, we try to motivate them,” Martinez said.
“Itâ€™s like, â€˜Thereâ€™s something beyond high school. Thereâ€™s higher education, and, look, thereâ€™s all these people who came from similar backgrounds and they were able to do it despite the challenges that they faced.”
Story by Heather Billings