Catapulting careers

Building trebuchets to teach teamwork

click to enlarge Catapulting careers
The trebuchet builders and operators included, left to right, Dave Colonius, Riki Dial, Matt Hill, Jimmy Hill, Dwayne Anderson and Raymond Colonius

Leah Wilson, Kidzeum executive director, is constantly working to engage youth in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) learning experiences. Kidzeum embarked on a partnership with Lincoln Land Community College (LLCC) and the carpenters' union to build and demonstrate trebuchets – a form of catapult using a counterweight – for a fall "punkin chuckin" event. When plans fell through due to insurance and liability complications, the trebuchets were already half-built. Undaunted, the team turned this into a valuable learning experience for youth and adults.

Carol Andrew serves on the Kidzeum board. She has seven younger brothers involved in the trades and used those connections to find people willing to accept Kidzeum's challenge to build trebuchets. She found enthusiastic partners with Carpenters Local 270 and the LLCC Workforce Development Highway Construction Careers Training Program (HCCTP) led by Tom Spears.

A trebuchet is a type of catapult that uses a counterweight, rather than a spring, to create the force to hurl an object from a sling. The trebuchet was a fearsome medieval weapon of the Middle Ages, capable of smashing castle walls. Trebuchets have greater accuracy than a spring catapult and can land a pumpkin within a circle the size of a hula hoop. People building the trebuchets likely have more confidence in this than insurance companies.

The Illinois Department of Transportation funds the HCCTP, which is an intensive training program to give individuals technical skills to enter the trades and highway construction careers. Building a trebuchet was integrated into the fall curriculum. Josh Patton joined the HCCTP after graduating from Pleasant Plains High School and participated in the project. He says there was a lot of problem-solving and special skills needed to understand the mechanism and how to implement the project safely. "It's pretty fun knowing we built one," said Patton.

Livia Adams is a graduate of the HCCTP. She fell in love with work in the trades. She is now 18 and a first-year apprentice for a sheet metal program. "Going through this class helps you get ready to go out to the real world and be on a job site," she says. She learned to show up early, be on time, put the effort in, don't quit, and ask for help if you need it. She has returned to speak to other classes and help with projects, such as building the trebuchet. Dave Colonius retired from the Secretary of State's office as a maintenance carpenter. Spears hired him to teach the advanced portion of universal shop for HCCTP. Colonius led their trebuchet team. "It's about the kids," says Colonius. "They learned how to overcome problems and issues."

Riki Dial, Mid-America Carpenters Regional Council, was the first to get the local carpenters union involved. Dwayne Anderson is president of the Carpenters Local 270 and leads the Carpenters in Action (CIA) committee that volunteers with community projects. It was a perfect fit for the CIA. "We can build anything," says Anderson.

click to enlarge Catapulting careers
At the Lincoln Land Community College campus on a November Saturday, the trebuchets, named David and Goliath, launched pumpkins that traveled over 100 feet.

Matt Hill is a carpenter, self-proclaimed science geek and volunteer with CIA. He enjoyed having his son, Jimmy, experience this with him. Jimmy Hill is in seventh grade at PORTA junior high in Petersburg; his favorite subject is math. When Jimmy learned LLCC named its trebuchet Goliath, he gave the name David to the one built by the Carpenters. Jimmy learned how to drill and use a saw, helped research the formulas required for a successful trebuchet and learned about problem-solving.

On a cold, blustery Saturday before Thanksgiving, the teams demonstrated David and Goliath behind the Workforce Development Building at LLCC. The launched pumpkins traveled over 100 feet. Unfortunately, the payload arm of Goliath broke, and the Carpenters union team helped to reinforce it with steel. "The carpenters came to help us out," said Colonius. "We are a brotherhood."

The team also came together to present a program for approximately 25 boys from The Outlet to help bring STEAM alive. They explained the process of building a trebuchet and the history of this ancient device used as a weapon in the 12th century. They shared lessons learned, including the power of teamwork and working together on behalf of the community. Also, things that go wrong teach you a lot, and knowing how things work can help solve problems. They also shared information about apprenticeship programs and career opportunities in the trades. "Collectively, the boys said 'wow!' when they saw the video of the trebuchet launching a pumpkin high into the air," said John James, program director for The Outlet. "We had a highly engaged Q and A session where our youth learned about the construction trades and STEAM details."

Jimmy Hill, who worked side-by-side with his dad, Matt Hill, described how they solved problems: "We all thought together, we had multiple ideas, and we decided what was the best."

Karen Ackerman Witter started freelance writing after retiring from a 35-year career in Illinois state government. Through writing and community service her goal is to connect people, organizations and ideas to achieve greater results.

About The Author

Karen Ackerman Witter

Karen Ackerman Witter started freelance writing after a 35-year career in state government holding various senior leadership positions. Prior to retiring she was associate director of the Illinois State Museum for 14 years. She is the past president of the Kidzeum Board of Directors and is an active volunteer...

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