Jump to main content

Build a Popsicle Stick Catapult

1
2
3
4
5
1 review

Summary

Active Time
10-20 minutes
Total Project Time
10-20 minutes
Key Concepts
Physics, engineering, kinetic energy, potential energy, projectile motion
Credits
Ben Finio, PhD, Science Buddies
Popsicle Stick Catapult

Introduction

Catapults were mighty handy for pirates in the golden age of piracy (during the 17th century). And medieval knights used them centuries earlier for taking down massive castle walls. Even Greeks and Romans used catapults about 2,000 years ago! These simple machines are quite handy, as long as you know how to aim them! In this science activity you will try your hand at catapult technology. Can you predict where your cotton ball will land?

This activity is not recommended for use as a science fair project. Good science fair projects have a stronger focus on controlling variables, taking accurate measurements, and analyzing data. To find a science fair project that is just right for you, browse our library of over 1,200 Science Fair Project Ideas or use the Topic Selection Wizard to get a personalized project recommendation.

Materials

  • Popsicle sticks (8)
  • Rubber bands (at least 5)
  • Glue
  • Plastic bottle cap to hold a cotton ball
  • Cotton ball (If you do not have any available, you can make a small ball by crumbling some paper.)
  • Small open area (One square meter will do. It should be a sturdy, flat surface such as a table or floor.)
  • Optional: markers to decorate your popsicle sticks
    Materials to make popsicle stick catapult

Prep Work

  1. Note: The simple catapult described in this project is safe when used with a cotton ball. Shooting hard objects or using other homemade catapults can be dangerous. Make sure any objects you launch are soft and light so as not to harm anyone or cause any damage to objects around you.
  2. Optional: use markers to decorate your popsicle sticks before you start.
  3. Take six craft sticks, stack them one on top of the other. Secure these sticks together by wrapping rubber bands around both ends of the stack. You will anchor the launching stick to this stack, as described in the next step.

    Six popsicle sticks stacked on top of each other with a rubber band wrapped around each end
  4. To add the launching stick take one stick and attach it perpendicular to the stack you just made, around the middle, so you get a cross shape. You can do this with one or two rubber bands that are crossed in an X over the sticks. If you cross it this way, the sticks will stay nicely perpendicular.

    A perpendicular popsicle stick attached to the middle of the stack with rubber bands
  5. Next, add the base by attaching a stick to one end of the launching stick with a rubber band. If it were not for the stack of sticks in between, the launching stick would fall flat on top of the base. Now the launching stick and the base form a V shape lying on its side with the stack of sticks in the middle.

    Another popsicle stick attached to the other side of the stack, and to one end of the launching stick with a rubber band
  6. Put your catapult on its base, locate the end of the launching stick that sticks up and glue the bottle cap there so it forms a small cup to hold the cotton ball.

    Plastic bottle gap glued to one end of the launcher stick
  7. Wait until the glue is dry.

Instructions

  1. Put your catapult in an open area with a sturdy, flat surface such as a table or an open space on a hard floor. Clear about a meter of open space for the cotton ball to fly and land.
  2. Place a cotton ball in the launching cup, push the cup down just a little bit and let go.
    Think about:
    What happened to the ball? Did it fly? Did it go high or low? Where did it land?
    Think about:
    What do you expect will happen when you push the cup farther down? Will this make it fly higher, farther, both higher and farther or take the same path but maybe faster?

    Catapult built with popsicle sticks, rubber bands, and a plastic bottle cap, holding a cotton ball
  3. Perform a test: Put your cotton ball in the cup, push the cup down farther, release and observe. You might need to repeat the test a few times to make your observations. It all happens fast!
    Think about:
    Does your ball fly higher or lower? Does it land farther or nearer when you push down a lot compared with when you push down a little?
    Think about:
    Did you notice in which case you needed to do the most work? Is it when you pushed down a little or when you pushed down farther?
  4. Try more launches.
    Think about:
    Do you get similar results each time? Is what you observe what you expected? Can you explain why?

What Happened?

Did you see your cotton ball fly higher and farther when you pushed you launching stick farther down?

When you bend your stick, you load your launching stick up with energy. When you let go, this energy is released and converted to energy of motion. Most of this energy transfers to the cotton ball, which shoots through the air.

Pushing the stick down farther takes more effort from you. Maybe you felt you needed to exert more force or work harder to bend the stick farther. Bending farther means more energy gets stored in the stick, and when you let go, all this stored energy is converted into energy of motion, so the cotton ball flies through the air at a higher speed. In the case of your catapult, the cotton ball probably flew higher and farther.

Moving the stack of six sticks closer to the launching cup makes the launching stick lie flatter. This results in a cotton ball aimed more upward than forward. Pushing your six sticks the other direction creates a greater angle between the launching stick and the base. This helps you aim the cotton ball forward.

Digging Deeper

A catapult works because energy can be converted from one type to another and transferred from one object to another. When you prepare the catapult to launch, you add energy to it. This energy is stored in the launching device as potential, or stored, energy. The catapult you are about to make uses elastic potential energy* stored in a wooden stick as you bend it. When you let go, this stored energy is released, converted into energy of motion (kinetic energy) and transferred to the cotton ball, which then flies through the air.

*There are other types of potential energy, like gravitational potential energy—the stored energy an object has due to its height off the ground.

icon scientific method

Ask an Expert

Curious about the science? Post your question for our scientists.

For Further Exploration

  • Test what happens if you move the stack of six sticks closer to the launching cup or in the other direction. This will change the position of the launching stick when the missile becomes airborne. How do you think your change will affect the ball's flight path?
  • Build several catapults and play a game with your friends. Use a leftover bottle cap as a target. Place the catapults in a circle about 60 centimeters away from the cup and see who can score the most goals. Make the circle bigger and see who can adjust their launching technique to best fit the new conditions.

Project Ideas

    Science Fair Project Idea
    If you were in a raiding army in the Middle Ages, a catapult would come in mighty handy for taking down castle walls. But only if you could aim it reliably! With this science project, you will try your hand at catapult technology. Using a rubber-band-powered catapult you will send ping pong balls flying through the air. The catapult's design makes it easy to measure and repeat how hard the ball is launched and its direction, so you can find the right catapult settings to hit the target reliably. Read more

Careers

Career Profile
Mechanical engineers are part of your everyday life, designing the spoon you used to eat your breakfast, your breakfast's packaging, the flip-top cap on your toothpaste tube, the zipper on your jacket, the car, bike, or bus you took to school, the chair you sat in, the door handle you grasped and the hinges it opened on, and the ballpoint pen you used to take your test. Virtually every object that you see around you has passed through the hands of a mechanical engineer. Consequently, their… Read more
Career Profile
You use mechanical devices every day—to zip and snap your clothing, open doors, refrigerate and cook your food, get clean water, heat your home, play music, surf the Internet, travel around, and even to brush your teeth. Virtually every object that you see around has been mechanically engineered or designed at some point, requiring the skills of mechanical engineering technicians to create drawings of the product, or to build and test models of the product to find the best design. Read more

Reviews


|
Science Buddies |
Was this review helpful?

Top
Free science fair projects.