Launching an understanding of physics

Smithers physics students use medieval siege weapons to gain knowledge of the universe of physics.

To remember the good old days of high school physics, it seemed like there was nothing in the science but semi-magical formulae and failed experiments that really were not that interesting.

Step up to the modern age and we have something that is quite different.

For the past few years, students at Smithers Secondary School have been assembling old fashioned style trebuchet for an attempt to see how physics can not only be interesting, but also lots of fun.

First of all, what’s a trebuchet? It’s a type of siege engine which uses a swinging arm to throw a projectile at the enemy. There are various sorts which have been around for more than 1,000 years.

Breaking it down to a high school level, they are a great way to introduce concepts such as mechanical advantage, gravity, potential energy and a whole slew of other basic ideas of physics.

Last week, physics students completed the assembly of their trebuchet designs and moved them out adjacent to the track at the high school to see how they would work.

Quite a number of students, a few teachers and one nervous looking little dog gathered to see which one would hurl a tennis ball the furthest.

In some ways it was like an exhibition of the Three Stooges. After winding up, pulling back and pulling out a trigger pin. It seemed like some of them simply fell apart. Not quite that brutal but some had some difficulty hurling that ball.

While some of the machines were really tossing the ball across the field, adjustments had to be made on many others.

One seemed to go straight up in an attempt to hit the lower reaches of outer space, a few threw the ball back at the school, and at least one seemed to be the latest in psychological warfare with an eerie wail as the ball was launched.

The furthest toss was apparently all the way across the field.

Whatever the level of success, the experiment was the type of educational exercise that is a practical demonstration of science that is around us every day and that students need to have an understanding of in our modern world.

By the way, that little puppy needn’t have worried. There never was a plan to let it try for a flight like that dog in Sputnik.

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