Egg drop on steroids

For 10 years, engi­neering pro­fessor Richard Whalen has held what he calls an “egg-​​drop com­pe­ti­tion on steroids.”

If you haven’t par­tic­i­pated in an egg drop com­pe­ti­tion your­self, chances are you’ve at least heard about it. Stu­dents are asked to build a con­trap­tion that safely delivers a fragile egg to the ground from a dis­tance above. Increase that dis­tance from about three feet (top of desk to the floor), to say, 50, and change your egg into a pumpkin and you’ve prob­ably found your­self in Rich Whalen’s Engi­neering and Design course for first-​​year engi­neering students.

His rules are simple: with a lim­ited amount of cash, build a pumpkin car­rier that meets cer­tain size and weight lim­i­ta­tions and that you can throw off the top of the Gains­bor­ough parking garage. If you hit the target on the pave­ment below without splat­tering pumpkin guts every­where, you get an A.

Lesser out­comes include minor damage (a split half the diam­eter of the pumpkin), major damage (a full split), and “splat” (wherein the pumpkin is ejected from its seat spreading orange mayhem across the lot).

When I asked Rich to describe what makes a win­ning design, he was unable to commit. Some designs work and he’s amazed, he said, while “others that look phe­nom­enal fail mis­er­ably.” For instance, com­pli­cated con­trap­tions that incor­po­rate bungee cords and para­chutes might not do as much to pro­tect their pumpkin as they may first appear. A giant card­board box stuffed with blan­kets, bread, and crush­able paper cups, on the other hand? That migh bet the very thing you need.

Overall, Whalen said, when the frame breaks, the pump­kins sur­vive. Per­haps this is coun­ter­in­tu­itive, but it obeys a stan­dard prin­ciple of crumple zone tech­nolo­gies used to pro­tect car pas­sen­gers: The vehicle suc­cumbs, not the passenger.

Whalen said that his stu­dents hadn’t yet encoun­tered crumple tech­nology in class, given they are only a month into col­lege. To over­come this obstacle, some do research on their own to under­stand it. Others, like my buddy Naoki Cho, took their cues from NASA: “We drew inspi­ra­tion from the landing device of the Mars rover Spirit, which would inflate a bar­rier of sev­eral airbags all around the rover prior to impact,” Cho told me. “Our design placed the pumpkin within a box filled with packing mate­rial for cush­ioning, and the box itself was encased in a shell of duct tape and inflat­able bouncy balls.”

The facilities crew carried boxes full of pumpkin 300 feet up only to throw them back down to the ground again. Photo by Christina McNeil.
The facil­i­ties crew car­ried boxes full of pumpkin 300 feet up only to throw them back down to the ground again. Photo by Christina McNeil.

As an added bonus this year, stu­dents whose devices were man­age­able enough to fit inside the con­struc­tion ele­vator at the Grand­Marc res­i­dence hall, which is cur­rently being erected on Hunt­ington Avenue, got an instant A. These pump­kins were dropped from a whop­ping 300 feet! One lucky pumpkin had the plea­sure of drop­ping without the help of a bril­liant young engi­neering student. Watch video here.


If you’d like to hear more about this delightful event, I sug­gest you take a listen to this fan­tastic retelling from my friend’s 4-​​year-​​old daughter, who was lucky enough to watch the event with her nursery school class. Listen here.


And just in case you haven’t had enough yet, here are two more videos (with slow motion instant replay!) showing a couple of the designs in action:

Crumple Zone

Soft Things


Related Faculty: Richard Whalen