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Making a clean sweep

St. Bede’s AP physics class attempting to make a slam dunk

The AP physics class at St. Bede Academy in Peru has modeled an air-powered basketball launcher, which allows students to see first hand how basic principals, such as impulse-momentum theorem, projectile motion and kinematics play out in real life.

While the device has yet to make a slam dunk, it is able to shoot a basketball across the gymnasium — and pretty close to the basket.

Students are still experimenting, working out the kinks and referring back to their formulas. But they are determined to narrow in on the right solution.

Carter Funfsinn, a senior at SBA, built the model using scrap wood, an air pressure tank and some tubing and fabrication. He said the most expensive piece of the model was actually the basketball, which cost $20.

AP physics teacher Rick Fess compared the model to a giant potato gun, only much safer because it doesn’t require fuel for the explosion.

The device works like so: About a gallon of air is pressurized in a tank to about 100 psi. When the tank’s valve is quickly opened, it discharges the air at a high rate of speed. The air bursts into a tube connected to a barrel that holds the basketball in place. The barrel is designed to fit the ball tightly, so when the burst of air pushes on the ball, it creates friction. This allows for pressure to build-up behind the ball before creating enough impact to shoot the ball across the court.

While teaching the laws of physics in front of the class in one thing, Fess said incorporating hands-on experiments, like the basketball launcher, makes learning more fun for students and allows them to visualize lessons and equations written out in a textbook.

The model the students are currently working on has undergone several modifications to help it work efficiently. Funfsinn said with a lot of trial and error, the model is what it is today. The first model was a more portable set-up, where the pressurized tank was held by a student during the launch. But the class quickly discovered the recoil was hard to manage, and a wooden frame had to be built to hold the tank in place during the explosion.

Now with a stronger model, Fess said students are reworking the math and lining up velocities to get the right aim for that basketball to swish through the hoop.

A lesson being taught on the side of this experiment is that real life scenarios can be more challenging to figure out as opposed to problems displayed on a whiteboard.

While students have solved the equation that tells them the ball should make a clean basket, their calculation doesn’t factor in things like air leaks and other elements or situations So figuring out an answer around those circumstances is what’s keeping students actively brainstorming for the upshot.

To see students launch the basketball across the SBA gymnasium, watch BCR’s Tout video at

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