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The Mighty One

Warwick Castle flung open its medieval gates on a stunning spring day in March to host almost 40 pupils, from the Keele Primary Partnership, who were taking part in the annual (hopefully) ‘Mighty One’ Trebuchet Building Competition. This event was the castle’s flagship project during the British Science Association’s British Science Week. 

For those who haven’t engaged in medieval history of late, the trebuchet was the largest and most formidable of siege machines and was, in essence, a huge catapult.

The trebuchet was used to hurl huge projectiles to breach castle walls. Large rocks and stones were the main ammunition but there is evidence of more unusual material. Manure and dead animals were also hurled by the machines into the besieged castle to spread disease! Pigs were often picked as the animal of choice as they were thought to be more aerodynamic. In this case, pigs most definitely could fly!

This competition was organised by Scott Walker, Ogden Science Officer at Keele University in conjunction with the Education Team at Warwick Castle, and is designed to engage pupils in numerous aspects of the National Curriculum including elements of physics, maths, design & technology, engineering as well as history and English in a unique and innovative context.

As an example of the cross-curricular nature of this project, a useful virtual trebuchet simulator was used to model the projectile motion of a trebuchet missile and allow the students to explore which variables can/should be altered in a bid to design and build the winning machine.

On the day, students explored the castle and its surroundings to uncover its stunning history (dating back to 914AD) which was further brought to life with various shows including a birds of prey demonstration and the opportunity to see ‘The Mighty One’ trebuchet (the largest siege machine in the world) in action.

Following a hearty lunch, the pupils were placed in teams of six and given a very crude set of trebuchet building instructions. A variety of MDF and plywood (pre-cut) pieces were made available along with a selection of simple hand tools and DIY items such as hammers, nails and insulation tape. Builders’ sand was the counterweight of choice. It was an intriguing few minutes at the start of the building session to see the teams discussing whether to stick to the rudimentary instructions or go ‘off script’ and build something bigger and ‘better’.

At the end of the two-hour building time, each team had created something that could happily pass an ID parade as a trebuchet. Several teams managed to ‘fire’ their machine, which is no mean feat considering the short timescale.

“It would be disingenuous to say that any tennis balls were ‘launched’,” says Scott. “Perhaps ‘gently caressed along the floor’ might be a better phraseology! 

“That, however, is the beauty of this competition – the learning didn’t cease at the end of the building and testing phase. Following the students return to school, the trebuchets went with them, and I have been reliably informed that further developments will be made in the hope that they can become mini-siege machines in their own right!” 

"I would like to take this opportunity to thank the students from Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College and Newcastle Under Lyme College – two schools within the Keele Secondary Partnership – for volunteering their time to come and support the primary pupils – especially when A-level exams are not too far away. Without their support, it would have been very difficult to stage and manage the day.” says Scott. 

“It highlights the excellent working relationship that has developed between the two Keele Partnerships and I sincerely hope more collaboration will follow – the next opportunity will be at the inaugural Stoke-on-Trent Science Festival in July.”

St John’s CofE Primary (Keele), Yarlet School, Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College and Newcastle-under-Lyme College took part in the day.