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Cloudy with a chance of pumpkins

This time of year pumpkins are traditionally used for Halloween decorations. But on Thursday a group of Northeastern students instead hurled them from atop Gainsborough Garage, all in the name of engineering.

Richard Whalen, a senior academic specialist in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, started the annual pumpkin drop for first-year engineering students about 10 years ago.

Students in his class are tasked with designing a contraption that protects a pumpkin from being damaged after it falls 50 feet to a target below. The students have a limited budget and their protective contraption must meet specific weight and size measurements.

“When I first present this project to the students I call it an ‘egg drop on steroids,’” Whalen explained. “It introduces them to the design process, promotes team building, and gets them excited about engineering in a fun way.”

Pumpkin Explosions

The remnants of a pumpkin after it was dropped 50 feet from the top of the Gainsborough Garage on Thursday for the annual first-year engineering students’ pumpkin drop. Photo by Maria Amasanti

One of the most popular designs among Whalen’s students was a box-in-box—or crumple zone—design that separates the pumpkin from the contraption’s outer surface, which takes the brunt of the impact. Many of the pumpkins made it through with only minor damage.

Team Air Pop took extra joy in discovering that its pumpkin suffered no damage. That’s because fellow classmates voted the group’s design second-least likely to succeed. Team members put the pumpkin in a cardboard box and filled it with popcorn. That box was then put in a PVC pipe frame that was weighed down with weights and water.

“We were a little nervous at first because a lot of people in class didn’t think it would work,” said team member Alex Lemaire, E’19. “I got the idea for the popcorn because I used it for an egg drop in third grade, and it worked then.”

This year’s edition of the pumpkin drop also added a messier wrinkle to the event. Students in assistant professor of engineering Chirag Variawa’s class turned the tables on the pumpkins, making the orange fruit the expendable vessel that protected an egg dropped from the top of the garage.

Variawa also tasked his students with bringing a business perspective to their projects. The students were separated into groups of four and charged with creating their own fictitious engineering companies; they researched and developed designs based on their companies’ ideals and missions.

“It’s a fun activity, and it is active learning,” Variawa said. “It helps the students form relationships, which is really important in the first year of college. And it gets them thinking about brand development, which I think is lacking in engineering curricula.”

Many students in Variawa’s class opted to use food as a way to keep the egg safe, packing the inside of the pumpkin with eats such as honey, cereal, or marshmallows.

Team Basement Designs’ mission was to keep the egg safe using household items. The group’s egg was protected inside a Pringles can layered with cotton and socks, and the can was attached to two plastic bag “parachutes.” Their egg suffered no damage.

“One of the reasons we used household items was because of budget,” said team member Kevin Leiser, E’19. “But we also we wanted to use items you would normally just throw away when you are done with them, so we are promoting recycling.”

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