When Brian Sievers hit the launch trigger,
Students squinted in the morning sun to catch a glimpse of the potato fired from the launcher. The spud landed with a thud, and everyone smiled and clapped.
Beyond the visual and audio candy of launching potato-mortars, the activity taught physics concepts and, ideally, opened a few students’ minds to the idea of STEM careers.
“The demonstration was an exciting way to explore projectile motion,” Sievers said.
Students watched, share conversations, answer Sievers’ questions, and eventually applauded as the potatoes flew over the softball dugouts.
“In class it is often difficult to have students observe something like the time a projectile is in the air. With our projectile traveling a couple of hundred feet, it was easier for them to see the difference in time of flight for various angles.”
Launching from a low angle, students could see the potato travel away but hit the ground quickly. When Sievers raised the angle of the cannon, the class could see that the potato stayed in the air longer.
“While observing the increase in flight time for an increase in launch angle, students also observed that the reverse was true to the horizontal distance traveled by the potato, or the range. If we tried to use small equipment in class they would not have time to make these observations,” he said.
Interesting, unconventional experiences like these inspire curiosity and, hopefully, get kids to consider careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.
In recent years, the number of students in the U.S. earning college degrees in STEM areas has decreased. Many who initially declare a major in STEM areas change their course of study once they realize the work involved.
“Students love to build things and see how they behave. They have an innate curiosity. The potato cannons demonstrate that you can build things to explore science,” Sievers said.
Such experiences spark creativity in building and testing designs.
“Then they can form solid conclusions based upon results. This is the core of all science and research. It is a way to develop thinkers, and that is what the American education system must do to regain its prominence in the world,” Sievers said.