STEAM Fest: Making Giant Catapults with Mackintosh Academy

IMG_0937 What happens when you put power drills in the hands of more than 100 children at the Boulder STEAM fest?

At the Mackintosh Academy booth, children (and their adults) built and launched more than 30 giant catapults of their own unique design. The giant machines were constructed of wood and spare parts like snow shovels, floor mops, toilet seats, skis, Tupperware, bicycle pedals, and various other items meant to challenge creativity and their design imagination. Participants even went beyond catapults, creating several sling-shots, one cross-bow, and one trebuchet. Many children tinkered with their designs for hours until they were able to hurl objects such as whiffle balls more than 50 yards over the orange-fenced border of the fair. The furthest fling came from one of the sling-shot designs.

STEAM Fest speaker Temple Grandin stopped by the Mackintosh booth to watch the action, and remarked with an approving nod, “Kids don’t tinker enough these days.” She later referenced the Mackintosh booth in her lunch-time talk with teachers as she discussed the virtues of hands-on learning, tinkering, and engineering as ways to give students alternative opportunities to explore their strengths and gifts.

On hand to support the effort were Mack teachers, parents, and even Head of School, JJ Morrow. During a kick-off panel for STEAM University on Saturday, JJ discussed the importance of hands-on, inquiry-based education as the foundation for engaged learning. While showing an image of what appeared to be children merely enjoying unstructured play in a sandbox, he detailed what had emerged from that: a complex engineering project in which different ages of learners were helping construct a sluice ramp to capture iron filings with magnets from the sand. Imbedded in this kind of exploration are higher-level learning in areas such as engineering, social justice, and chemistry.

IMG_0941Throughout the two-day festival, many parents spent hours at the Mackintosh booth as their children created, tinkered, and perfected their designs. One family built three different catapults, including both large and small designs. Former Mack students turned a ski into a ramp to make an object take flight. Designs evolved as children were inspired by each other’s innovations. The basic lever and fulcrum design saw as many iterations as there were groups of children. One young man in a full leg cast had as much fun deconstructing catapults as others had creating them. Day two wrapped with a take-apart session as massive as the catapults themselves. Children’s delight in both building and deconstructing demonstrated that what matters are the experiences that arise when you put real tools in children’s hands.

For littler hands, Mackintosh also had small and medium sized catapults materials–plastic spoons, rubber bands, duct and masking tape. Using experimentation and trial small children learned basic design principles of fulcrums and levers, flinging objects like fuzz balls and candies. Many may be planning designs for next year when they are big enough to wield a power drill of their own.