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Depew students win trebuchet contest with record-setting pumpkin toss

Once again, the annual trebuchet competition at Clarence's Great Pumpkin Farm has catapulted STEM students into the middle of the action.

In its 12th iteration Sunday, teams from 13 schools hauled full-sized trebuchets to the venue and took turns launching pumpkins across a field, scored on distance and accuracy. Designed, constructed and perfected by students, the hands-on project teaches kids about science, technology, engineering and math in a way that can't be accomplished in the classroom, teacher-coaches said.

"It's not the same as launching a pumpkin 500 feet and watching it splat," said Douglas Borzynski, STEM coordinator at Buffalo Academy of Science, a charter school on Franklin Street. He coached the team to a win in the Storming the Castle accuracy category.

The Buffalo Academy of Science team is made up of 10 robotics students, most of them female.

"People tend to underestimate us a bit," said Ericka Edmonds, a junior. "It's exciting because we're the underdogs, but we're also pretty good."

Edmonds and the Buffalo Academy of Science were the first and only team Sunday to shoot its pumpkin through the most difficult mark of a castle-shaped target, clinching their win.

The trebuchet is a type of catapult that uses a swinging arm to fling a projectile. It was used as early as the 4th century B.C. to breach enemy strongholds in conflicts. Today, it's a popular teaching tool in STEM classes, as students use the scientific method to change variables in their pursuit of hitting a target or throwing a specific distance. It also helps them understand the physics and engineering that go into building and firing a trebuchet, and learn how to calculate variations in mass and throwing distance.

The annual contest is a "very big deal" according to Jacob Rath, a student who competed with Depew High School. Students look forward to their senior year when they are eligible to take the Engineering Design and Development class that makes the catapult its centerpiece. In addition to class time, the team of 20 students worked on the trebuchet during free periods, after school and for several hours on Saturdays for the past six weeks. Student teams have been perfecting the school's catapult year after year, building on previous classes' work. They regularly consult with alumni and have kept records of notes and data going back to 2005.

"It's all student-led. You don't go to the teacher with anything, you go to another student," said Mike Borodzik, the team captain. "If there isn't a student who can answer your question, then you go to the teacher."

Depew High School won the Longest Single Throw prize, with a toss of 502 feet, setting a new record for the contest. It also won the Highest Total Combined Throw with 1,427 feet over three attempts. Since its trebuchet is built for distance and not accuracy, it opted out of the Storming the Castle contest.

Pioneer Central School came in second place for Highest Total Combined Throw with 1,141 feet, followed by Oakfield Alabama Central with 1,121 feet, Hamburg Central with 1,105 feet and Williamsville South with 1,056 feet. The teams placed in the same order for the Longest Single Throw category.

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