For 10 years, engineering professor Richard Whalen has held what he calls an “egg-drop competition on steroids.”
If you haven’t participated in an egg drop competition yourself, chances are you’ve at least heard about it. Students are asked to build a contraption that safely delivers a fragile egg to the ground from a distance above. Increase that distance from about three feet (top of desk to the floor), to say, 50, and change your egg into a pumpkin and you’ve probably found yourself in Rich Whalen’s Engineering and Design course for first-year engineering students.
His rules are simple: with a limited amount of cash, build a pumpkin carrier that meets certain size and weight limitations and that you can throw off the top of the Gainsborough parking garage. If you hit the target on the pavement below without splattering pumpkin guts everywhere, you get an A.
Lesser outcomes include minor damage (a split half the diameter of the pumpkin), major damage (a full split), and “splat” (wherein the pumpkin is ejected from its seat spreading orange mayhem across the lot).
When I asked Rich to describe what makes a winning design, he was unable to commit. Some designs work and he’s amazed, he said, while “others that look phenomenal fail miserably.” For instance, complicated contraptions that incorporate bungee cords and parachutes might not do as much to protect their pumpkin as they may first appear. A giant cardboard box stuffed with blankets, bread, and crushable paper cups, on the other hand? That migh bet the very thing you need.
Overall, Whalen said, when the frame breaks, the pumpkins survive. Perhaps this is counterintuitive, but it obeys a standard principle of crumple zone technologies used to protect car passengers: The vehicle succumbs, not the passenger.
Whalen said that his students hadn’t yet encountered crumple technology in class, given they are only a month into college. To overcome this obstacle, some do research on their own to understand it. Others, like my buddy Naoki Cho, took their cues from NASA: “We drew inspiration from the landing device of the Mars rover Spirit, which would inflate a barrier of several airbags all around the rover prior to impact,” Cho told me. “Our design placed the pumpkin within a box filled with packing material for cushioning, and the box itself was encased in a shell of duct tape and inflatable bouncy balls.”
As an added bonus this year, students whose devices were manageable enough to fit inside the construction elevator at the GrandMarc residence hall, which is currently being erected on Huntington Avenue, got an instant A. These pumpkins were dropped from a whopping 300 feet! One lucky pumpkin had the pleasure of dropping without the help of a brilliant young engineering student:
If you’d like to hear more about this delightful event, I suggest you take a listen to this fantastic retelling from my friend’s 4-year-old daughter, who was lucky enough to watch the event with her nursery school class:
And just in case you haven’t had enough yet, here are two more videos (with slow motion instant replay!) showing a couple of the designs in action: