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Rose-Hulman's Operation Catapult treats High School Students to a Taste of College Life

June 28, 2011

A miniature hovercraft glides down the hallway, tracking to one side and bumping into pedestrians despite the best efforts of its operator.  "It likes to go to the right," one of the team members comments as the others laugh.  

Welcome to Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology's Operation Catapult, a summer program which enables high school students to participate in hands-on engineering projects as they experience a slice of campus life.

     Catapult2011-Human Bingo
  132 students ask each other personal questions to supply answers for the grid boxes of their "bingo" cards as Catapult kicks off with a round of Get-Acquainted Bingo.

"That is actually really good and y'all are getting really high hover," Catapult Director Patsy Brackin encourages. The professor of mechanical engineering says that students must work in teams to complete their projects, while remaining within a limited budget.

The program, now in its 45th year, is open to students who have completed their junior year of high school.  Over the course of their three week session, students will stretch their brains by attending lectures and working in groups to build projects ranging from hovercraft to human-powered refrigerators.  Guided by Rose-Hulman faculty and technicians, the participants are encouraged to take on challenging projects that are of interest to them, but which they don't have a great deal of current knowledge.

This year, the program's first session is bursting at the seams with eager students. "Normally in first session we have about 115," Brackin explains, but this year she says, there are 132 students.

Operation Catapult provides a unique opportunity for participants.  Along with Rose-Hulman's world-class faculty, students have access to facilities and equipment not available to most. "The thing that is the absolute best about Catapult is that they have full use of our facilities," Brackin explains. That aspect affords students the ability to tackle projects that they could never do in a regular school setting.

Rose-Hulman technicians help the catapulters translate their ideas into real, working mechanisms. "This is the first time for many students that they have been able to work with technical people to build stuff," Brackin says.

Mechanical engineering technician Ray Bland helps students acquire the materials they need to complete their assignments.  In the Operation Catapult supply room, teams have access to tools and other items they need to build their projects. "Students can come here, check out consumables like tape and adhesives, and also tools," Bland says.

Just down the hall from the hovercraft teams, another group develops a Rube Goldberg project to steep a tea bag for a specific amount of time, using a required amount of steps.  "Our goal is to remove a tea bag after almost 2 minutes of steeping," team member Kerry McQuaid explains.  Employing  a series of toppling dominoes, falling checkers, rolling marbles, and even a cup of vinegar and some baking soda, the group must remain within a $50 budget while completing the assigned task. 

"We've got at least 15 steps at the moment," McQuaid says.  But the team is far from done. "The requirement is to have 20 steps," adds Brackin.

Operation Catapult not only provides attendees with hands-on engineering experience, it also gives them a taste of college life.  Rose-Hulman student-counselors oversee the social component of the program, planning activities both on and off campus. 

"It's our job to be with the kids from 5 p.m. to 2  a.m.," explains counselor Elaine Schaudt.  Cookouts, paintball, field trips and other fun activities add a social component to the hands-on academic program.  Living in the residence halls during their stay completes the catapulters' well-rounded campus experience.

The first session of Operation Catapult continues through July 1, when it culminates with a presentation of student projects.  Session two will begin on July 11th and run through July 29th.