The science of pumpkin chucking


Brandon Cundiff and Ting Chi “Johnny” Hsu load the pumpkin chucker. Photo by Terry Barner

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Before they graduate from Missouri S&T, students in the mechanical engineering program must take, and pass, ME 261, otherwise known as ME Senior Design.

The premise of the course is simple. Representatives from various industries present the department with a problem and a team of students spends the semester trying to solve it.


Pete’s Pumpkin Patch owners Chris and Tara Peters stand with Brandan Cundiff, team leader, and team members (from left) Josh Busche, Matt Lange, Gavin Gatzemeyer, Matt Korte, Todd Smith, Erin Hellebusch, Mike Stasiak and Ting Chi “Johnny” Hsu. Photo by B.A. Rupert

Often the end result is a spring or a bolt — something that becomes a component of a larger piece of machinery.

But sometimes the end result is more complex — like a pumpkin-chucking trebuchet.

“Sometimes engineering problems are fun,” says Brandon Cundiff, a 2012 mechanical engineering graduate and leader of the team assigned to Pete’s Pumpkin Patch. The group designed and built a floating-arm trebuchet capable of tossing a pumpkin up to 150 yards.

“We chose this project because it was more abstract,” Cundiff explains. “It’s not something you typically think of a mechanical engineer doing.”

“It’s the team’s job to define the customer’s project and provide a prototype solution,” says Ashok Midha, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and course advisor. “All of the projects require a conceptualization aspect. The students have to apply everything they’ve learned in engineering sciences to successfully complete the project.”


The students created a sign to explain the science of pumpkin chucking and the physics and history of the trebuchet to kids visiting the pumpkin patch. Photo submitted

Among the challenges the students encountered while building the 13-foot-tall contraption was dealing with numerous parts and the calculations required to make them all work together. Everything had to be square and there were no “do-overs.” It involved plenty of trips to the local home improvement store.
Success in the sport of pumpkin chucking is often determined by distance — the farthest pumpkin chucked wins. In this case, however, the goal is entertainment value.

“Part of the fun is seeing the pumpkin smash as it hits the ground,” says Tara Peters, who owns Pete’s Pumpkin Patch with her husband, Chris. Open in the fall, the couple’s pumpkin patch features family activities like a corn maze, a hay tower obstacle course, wagon rides and a petting zoo.

Kids will be able to check out the trebuchet when it makes its debut at Pete’s Pumpkin Patch this fall.

Story by Mary Helen Stoltz
Video by Terry Barner
Celebrate National Engineers Week Feb. 17-23.