Howard County high school students compete in pumpkin-chucking contest

The field behind the Columbia SportsPark in Columbia's Harper's Choice became a pumpkin graveyard Sunday, littered with fruit fragments left behind by county high schoolers.

Teams from Glenelg Country School, Marriots Ridge High School, Howard High School and Long Reach High School competed at the first-ever Pumpkin Chucking Contest, sponsored by the Columbia Association's Teen Advisory Committee. Despite some confusion over rules, malfunctioning equipment and rogue projectile pumpkins, 40 pumpkins were catapulted through the air in the contest.

"It's like flying pumpkin pie," said Howard freshman Kyle Doubleday, 14, after watching a pumpkin shoot from Howard's catapult. "This is awesome."

Other launches weren't so successful. Some pumpkins flew straight up into the air and back down, forcing contestants to scatter for cover. Others were launched backward and over a chainlink fence, smashing against pavilion roofs. The string for Long Reach's catapult snapped and before the competition even began, one of the main beams in Marriotts Ridge's catapult split in two.

"We tested it one too many times," said Liesl Krause, 16, a senior at Marriotts Ridge. "We were MacGyvering it back together in my workshop; we'd been practicing with basketballs, cantaloupes, watermelons, basketballs. It had been throwing them a lot farther than this."

When all was said and done, only the teams from Howard and Marriotts Ridge hit the target, and the Howard team catapulted its pumpkins the farthest (although the distance was not measured). For their efforts, the two teams were both declared winners and given $100 cash prizes.

The teen committee, created seven years ago by the CA Board of Directors, is made up of middle and high school students from public and private schools. The mission, said CA teen outreach program manager Carol Wasser, is to plan programs and activities for the county's teen community, and the council decided a pumpkin-chucking contest was the perfect autumn event.

The contest, Wasser said, was the brainchild of council member Joe Broderick. The 17-year-old senior at Glenelg Country School said he joined the council to help find ways for students from other schools to interact with each other, besides hanging out at the Columbia mall. Pumpkin-chucking seemed like a good option, he said, and Wasser agreed.

"We wanted to do something different in Columbia," Wasser said. "This was fabulous — we had such a great crowd, too. This is definitely something we'll do again, hopefully bigger and with more schools next year."

Through the event, and the weeks leading up to it, Wasser said the students learned first-hand the principles of physics, engineering and math. That was evidenced not only in the catapults but, for one school, in what was written on the catapult. Students from Marriotts Ridge covered their catapult with graffiti, including physics equations and the words, "It works, in theory.".

At Long Reach, students designed and built a catapult in about 40 hours, said Joe Novotni, the technology education teacher at the school, and while the students thought they were designing for miniature pumpkins, Eric Sturm, a junior, said he was still happy with the design.

"The design works," he said. "Next year we'll be prepared."

Other teams measured the time spent on their catapults in weeks, not hours. Marriotts Ridge students spent four to five weeks on theirs, and Glenelg students invested two to three weeks of class and after-school time.

Howard's team finished its catapult on Thursday and spent two days testing it. "It was a long trial-and-error period," said Howard technology education teacher Jon Pieper. "We used medicine balls, basketballs, pumpkins brought in after Halloween painted like Angry Birds (from a popular computer game). They were going every which way. It's been a lot of fun."

For students like Liesl and Kyle, the event wasn't just fun, it was a hands-on way to learn about the field they hope to enter someday: engineering.

"We all want to be engineers," said Liesl, the only girl on her team, "so it's a good learning experience."

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