Seeking to help environment, Robotics hosts 2nd pumpkin smashing event 

November 8, 2023 — by Florence Hu
Courtesy of Kai Otsuka
Members of MSET Cuttlefish clean out pumpkin remains from underneath the sledgehammer.
Another pumpkin smasher was built with a sledgehammer design, which swings back before slamming down.

“Three, two, one!” A machine’s 3-foot metal rod suddenly thrust six sharp blades into the pumpkin, crushing it to pieces. Slowly, the end of the piston rose back to its original position, dangling seeds from the fibrous strands of pumpkin pulp. 

That process, repeated again and again last Friday in the quad, turned dozens of Halloween pumpkins into compost.

Following a successful debut last year, Team 6165 MSET Cuttlefish hosted their second annual pumpkin smashing event, STEM Madness At Saratoga High (SMASH), on Nov. 3 from 3:30 to 6:30. Attendees had their pumpkins smashed by the two custom machines and walked around to explore a variety of STEM-themed activities hosted by various clubs. The event was the culmination of five months worth of organizing and planning. 

The event was first established by class of ‘23 alumna Emily Lu after she learned that over 1.3 billion pounds of pumpkin are tossed out each Halloween. The first pumpkin smasher was powered by an pneumatic cylinder that pushed down a piston when activated. The smashed pumpkins were then collected and shipped to a composting plant.

Courtesy of MSET Cuttlefish

A student hits the button to trigger the pneumatic smasher, crushing a pumpkin.

After realizing that they needed to account for the extensive setup and cleanup time per each pumpkin, Cuttlefish wanted to increase the rate of pumpkin smashing. Since it presented the opportunity to take on an novel, interesting challenge, the team started in early June to design a new smasher for this year. One of the main criteria for the final product was a more dramatic, theatrical effect. Initial ideas included a can-crusher, spinning circular saw and sledgehammer.

Courtesy of MSET Cuttlefish

Cuttlefish drew inspiration from existing mechanisms.

The purpose of the can-crushing design was to have more audience involvement in the process, but the team was unable to come up with the modifications needed for enough input torque on a scaled-up version of a can-crusher. Under concerns about the possible inconsistencies of a circular saw, they went with the option of using a sledgehammer that swung forward when released under tension.

Despite using a 16-pound hammer with a 34-inch handle, early trials revealed that the prototype needed more power. To solve this, the team increased tension on the exercise band by replacing it with a more powerful band that could withstand 80 to 100 pounds. This allowed for use of the component’s full potential through a much stronger elastic pull.

As a result of increased power, the point of rotation was raised so that the hammer wouldn’t have to pivot as much and require as much torque to lift. Most of the other design changes were also made to accommodate increased stress throughout the entire mechanism. Structural brackets that cracked at first were adjusted and the base was widened to ensure stability. 

In addition, the prototype initially had a ratchet (a one-way gear) paired with a large disengaging mechanism to allow students to manually wind up the hammer. However, its lengthy winding process and bulkiness of the disengager caused it to be replaced with a motor and a quick release. 

Finally, taking inspiration from last year’s design, a set of six blades was installed on the platform, allowing for the pumpkin to be sliced into cleaner pieces. 

Courtesy of Kai Otsuka

The set of blades comes down on a pumpkin after the safety lever is pulled and a student presses the activation button.

With many iterations and extensive adjustments made to the design, senior Jarrett Singh estimated that at least 200 hours of work were put into the project.

“The ideas were easier to come to, but the actual implementation of the design was more of a challenge,” Singh said. “We initially thought it was easier, but it was overall more difficult.”

Using this smasher, over 500 pounds of pumpkin were crushed and delivered to a composting plant, West Valley Recycles, in Campbell. With both smashers from last year and this year in use, the team hoped to save twice as many pounds of pumpkin from the landfill as they did last year. This prevented pumpkins from releasing detrimental greenhouse gasses like methane.

To educate the community about helping the environment through composting, Cuttlefish partnered with seven of the school’s clubs, including Nanoseed Club, Gardening Club and Green Committee. The process of organizing activities that were held last year was more streamlined since there were templates that could be used, so Cuttlefish wanted to expand the event to foster more engagement and push in-person outreach. 

Along with traditional carnival games, Cuttlefish also held a variety of robot demonstrations, science experiments and pumpkin carving activities. Meanwhile, the school’s Society of Women Engineers (SWE) club demonstrated how Arduinos, an open-source electronic prototyping platform, works. 

Courtesy of Kai Otsuka

Students gather at the center of the SHS quad to watch pumpkin smashing and robot demonstrations.

In addition to placing emphasis on the environmental benefits of composting, the team used the event to spread awareness about how STEM can create meaningful impact in the world. According to senior Maithreyi Bharathi, who helped organize the event, around 70 hours of work was put into reaching out to schools and local communities alone. She wanted to emphasize how the pumpkin smashers are solutions to tangible problems, such as the release of harmful greenhouse gasses from compostable organic waste.

“All of us started at school for robotics, and through the skills you can learn from these programs in the science and engineering departments, you can develop real world solutions,” Bharathi said.

Through this event, the Cuttlefish team hopes to promote and educate young students in the community about the innovative creations STEM can help bring into the world, going beyond what ordinary robotics competitions demand.

“This is not for a game like the usual robotics game, but this is like a real world solution to demolishing pumpkins and contributing to the environment,” Bharathi said.

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