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CADD Students Design Trebuchet Project

“Screwing up and learning from it is better than succeeding.” This statement by Computer Aided Design and Drafting Instructor John Means defines the philosophy behind MNTC’s trebuchet project.

The idea was to do something dynamic, not just a static project capping off the end of a student’s certification but something bigger. A work in progress for several years, the trebuchet (a large, fixed catapult used to throw heavy objects) is bringing together students in multiple disciplines—not just CADD but also Maintenance and Precision Machining—working together with a common-sense approach to engineering that’s essential once these students leave school and get out into the business world.

“Engineering is an iterative process,” says Means. “You don’t just come up with the final product, you need to investigate several modes of failure.”

The concept and planning have been ongoing for several years—so students come and go on the project just as they would in a working environment. “The real world doesn’t finish projects in a semester,” says Means. “Turnover is part of the process of learning and building.” And after several years in the planning and concept stages, it’s exciting that the project is now coming together physically.

Dean Bailey, the Student Project Manager, has been working on the trebuchet project for four of the six months he’s been attending MNTC. “I got put on the project before anything was built,” he says. “The best part was seeing it come to life and firing.” A test fire of the design uncovered unexpected weaknesses. “The firing arm broke,” says Bailey. “We’re in the middle of a redesign.”

And although failure is an essential part of the process, it’s not the easiest part for the students to deal with. Bailey and the other students working on the project (including Bradley Aker, Ha’son Fennell, Skyler Stevens and Thomas Watson) are using a hands-on method to generate results through failure. Students are learning the limitations of their knowledge, when to ask for help and when to take a chance.

“It’s a student-driven project with some guidance from instructors,” says Means, who is joined by Career Services—Maintenance Instructor Clifton Touchstone and Precision Machining Instructor Tracy Jones on the project. “The students are distilling the problem down to its root.” Breaking the process down into smaller pieces makes it easier for the students to come together and work as a team—a skill they’ll need in the real world. “The students are pulled together and support one another. This is a safe environment for their ideas to flourish.”

For Means, the best part of the process has been seeing his students evolve into team-oriented critical thinkers. “There are different ways of working in a group. This is all about refining the process with problem solving and team building—solving problems with common sense. Nobody bothers to teach students how to work in a group,” but it’s something that students will encounter out in the real world, after graduation. And it’s through working in a group, through trial and error that the students will find their success.

The classic failure mode is effective, a hands-on method of testing and giving students a feel for why the failure happened. For Bailey, the worst part of this process was by far the sheer number of failures in building the trebuchet before it fired. Means agrees, “It’s messy and energy intensive. It’s hard on the students.” Teaching these students how to manage expectations with outcome is also a part of the training they will need for success in life.

by Mari Farthing, freelance writer/editor