catapult, homeschool, Olympics, project based homeschooling, projects

Olympic Catapult

We are seriously inspired by the Olympics around here.

Since SuperSam is also going through a fascination with all things Viking and Middle Ages, he has been wanting to build a catapult. I saw this great post last week with a number of different designs. After looking through them, we decided together that this one would be the simplest for our first attempt.

SuperSam gathered the materials, read the instructions, and put the pieces together with some help. I did the rubber banding- it seemed a little beyond his fine motor capability that day, and he was impatient to get to the “shooting.”

He loaded up the catapult with a variety of plastic barnyard animals, dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures. He shot them across the kitchen for several minutes before deciding to go Olympic with it.

“We need trials!” he proclaimed. “We need to measure who goes the furthest and give the winner a medal. They get two attempts, but we throw out the low score and keep the furthest one.” Walking in frenetic circles around the kitchen, he stopped suddenly and said, “I need the tape measure.”

We duct-taped the tape measure from my sewing box to the floor and lined up the catapult. SuperSam wanted to make a chart to track the results, so I helped by writing the names of the four competitors in his notebook. After the first few trials, he took over writing down the results in the appropriate column.

Once everyone had two turns, we examined the results. SuperSam circled the highest score for each participant. He struggled slightly with figuring out which numbers were bigger- he was fine as long as he only compared two numbers to each other, but trying to decide how to work in all four numbers was confusing him. I had to strongly resist the urge to tell him how to figure it out.

Finally, he decided to just place each animal on the measuring tape at the point of its furthest distance traveled. “That way, I can just see who went the furthest,” he said.

He laid the animals out on the tape measure and was able to easily tell who had flown the furthest.

What a great idea that was! I’m not sure my “help” would have given him any greater understanding of the distances he was trying to compare. I’m glad I kept my mouth shut.

In true Olympic fashion, he made “medals” out of colored twist ties (one of those things I always save without any real idea of what we’ll do with them). Once the animals were wearing their medals, he arranged them on a podium and asked me to sing the national anthem. (All three medalists happened to be from the United States.)

Finally, he made a pair of glasses out of some twist ties, put them on my cactus plant and had “Bob Cactus” interview the winner. I wish I had video of this part, but sometimes being present in the moment is more important than recording it. The iguana had a really squeaky voice and kept saying, “Well, I really just decided to try my best.”

All in all, this was a really simple activity with lots of really practical, hands-on math built right in. Having plans to follow for the catapult design made it possible to do the whole thing in one morning. Although it might be a better engineering experience for SuperSam to design his own catapult, I think having the plans this time helped him understand the mechanics behind the catapult better than pure experimentation would have. I think he’s actually more likely to experiment with making his own design now that he’s built one using someone else’s plan.

My favorite part was definitely the Bob Cactus interview…but I’m guessing everyone’s catapult experience has a different kind of ending.

Let us know if you try making one!


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