Make a catapult at home

Courtesy photo

Catapult girls learn lessons in energy: When the spoon is pulled back, it has potential (stored) energy. When you let go, that potential energy becomes kinetic (motion) energy, and the object and lever arm fling forward.

Albuquerque-based children's museum and interactive science center Explora has been working hard since March to support kids and families during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The importance of out-of-school time learning opportunities is more important than ever, especially for families who traditionally face barriers to access. Explora has worked with its partners in the Gallup and Navajo Nation area - an area that has been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic - to provide accessible STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) content and outreach activities to keep youth exploring through play and engaged in hands-on learning.

Over the past six months, Explora has served the northwestern New Mexico community in various ways. For example, with funding from the New Mexico Association for the Education of Young Children and Navajo Transitional Energy Company, Explora is providing virtual workshops for early childhood providers, helping them learn new ways to keep young children engaged in STEAM-based play.

Aware of remaining accessible to families with limited broadband and internet access, Explora also developed and distributed Family STEAM Activity Cards via Navajo Nation schools and printed the activities, based on materials easily found at home, in regional newspapers.

Most recently, Explora produced and distributed over 200 learning kits, filled with interactive STEAM materials and guides, to Octavia Fellin Public Library in Gallup, and the Office of Diné Youth. These kits, funded in part by the Navajo United Way, included a unique set of materials intermingling paper weaving and coding concepts.

Explora was awarded a grant from Autism Speaks to produce 25 sensory-friendly versions of Explora @Home kits that will make their way to the Gallup area this month. Explora will continue to collaborate with its partners to provide engaging STEAM content to students, schools and families statewide. Visit to learn more.

Are you interested in having an Explora @Home experience with your child? Follow these instructions from one of Explora's Family STEAM Activity Cards to make your very own Catapult Creation, using only what you have on hand.

What you'll need:

9 craft sticks or Popsicle sticks

4-6 rubber bands

1 plastic spoon

A few small items (like marshmallows or cereal or cotton balls) to launch

What to do:

Stack seven of the craft sticks together, and wrap one rubber band around each end of the stack to hold it securely.

Stack the two remaining craft sticks together and wrap a rubber band around one end. Hold the other two ends open, so they make a narrow V, and slide the larger stack of craft sticks inside the V.

Tie a rubber band around the top arm of the V and the stack of craft sticks in a crisscross fashion to hold the two pieces together. The closer the stack is tied to the rubber-banded end of the V, the more leverage the catapult will have.

Use the remaining rubber band(s) to secure the plastic spoon to the top arm of the V, so the spoon end is just above the end of the craft stick.

Your catapult is ready to use! Try launching ping pong balls, aluminum foil balls, cotton balls, marshmallows or cereal. Place each object in the spoon, pull the top of the spoon back while holding the stack of sticks to the table, then let the spoon go! Which travels the farthest? Why?

What's going on?

A catapult is a simple machine called a lever. The stack of craft sticks on one end of the catapult is called a fulcrum, while the spoon and the craft stick it's attached to make up the lever arm. When the spoon is pulled back, it has potential (stored) energy. When you let go, that potential energy becomes kinetic (motion) energy, and the object and lever arm fling forward. Most of the power is transferred to the item you are catapulting, which flies across the room.

You can create more room to pull the lever back - and thus, store more energy - by adding more sticks to the fulcrum or by extending the length of the lever arm. This additional potential energy turns into kinetic energy when you let go, so your object flies farther.

Take it further!

Try launching two objects at the same time. What happens to the flight distance? Do the two items go the same distance? Do they go as far as one object can go alone?

How can you design and adjust your catapult, so it hits the same target each time?

Try redesigning your catapult, or building a new one differently. Compare catapult performances.

Sheldon Hamilton is Explora communications coordinator.

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