Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

The Physics of Dropping Pumpkins

Plump pumpkins plunged 60 feet to the ground as Michigan high school physics and algebra students experimented with techniques to make a smooth landing.

Pumpkin Drop

Only one survived the fall, using a parachute that two students devised by going online to borrow ideas from NASA space capsule recovery chutes.

More than 70 students engaged in the project that reached its crescendo on Halloween, an appropriate milestone date to crash 60 donated pumpkins on concrete.

What has education come to? In my day, high school physics labs consisted of lame ripple tanks and pin lights. And algebra was, well, just algebraic calculations.

It just goes to show that kids of any age, at any time, at any place can grow animated when given a compelling challenge in a context they recognize.

The Kent Innovation pumpkin drop, according to the coordinating teachers, was a chance for students to explore and pursue any kind of  idea of which they could conceive to help the gourd survive free fall without a splattering thud.

One student gave his pumpkin a bed of Nerf balls. The pumpkin didn’t smash, but it cracked open upon impact. Another student thought saran wrap would protect the pumpkin in free fall. Upon reflection, the pumpkin may not have protected if the student accidentally bumped it off a carving table.

Two collaborating students gave their pumpkin a protective layer of rice in a cardboard Eggo box. Unlike their classroom trial run, which worked to salvage an egg, the pumpkin proved too heavy for the rice and cardboard and instantly became pumpkin purée on the pavement.

“I feel like I’ve learned a lot more about the physics behind the falling objects and free fall than anything – and that pumpkins aren’t very good at staying intact when they fall,” said Caroline, a junior.

With the field experiments over, students now will combine their energized math and science skills to predict how free fall might work on a larger scale than pumpkins dropping from a construction crane. From all accounts, they seemed excited by the prospect.

My interest in physics wasn’t piqued until adulthood, while working for Tektronix, which in many ways was a giant science lab. I was fascinated by the story of Howard Vollum assigning a small team to come up with a much improved display for his innovative oscilloscopes.

The team set to work by erecting a huge ripple tank, which apparently served as their laboratory for creating what at the time was a revolutionary and more accurate way to project electrons onto a screen.

Later, when corporate headquarters was placed in the middle of Tek Labs, I routinely bumped into the men who worked on computer chips used to scramble and unscramble bits of data for mobile devices, high-resolution flat panels used in military jet cockpits and cartographic quality color printers. And then there was the unheralded prophet who wandered the building urging an evolution from desktop test equipment to what he called a “scope on a chip.”

It was eye-popping and eye-opening stuff for a kid with a degree in English literature. Science suddenly didn’t seem stiff and abstract; it seemed practical and logical. Experiencing science made it real and appealing.

Too bad more schools cannot create their pumpkin drops or simulated research laboratories to open the eyes of students who may find science isn’t just a difficult school subject, but a lifetime calling.


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