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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Jacob Funes and Stefany Abad aim for the target on their watermelon-catching contraption at Copper Hills High School in West Jordan on Friday, July 6, 2012.

WEST JORDAN — Students at Copper Hills High School learned about engineering and physics by dropping watermelons off the school's roof Friday.

The challenge — to catch the watermelons intact using student-designed contraptions — was part of a special summer science program that offers a year's credit for a five-week accelerated course.

Students tested 11 devices as simple as a garbage can filled with water to complicated wood and PVC pipe frames latticed with tarps, elastic cords and nylon netting.

The movie "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" inspired the watermelon catcher built by seniors David Vance and Michael Tyler. It consisted of an approximately 12-foot-tall tower with two horizontal sheets that the melon would pass through before landing on a third sloped sheet at the tower's base.

Vance explained that, like Harrison Ford's character in the movie, the watermelon would slow down at each level before the last sheet shifted its momentum forward instead of down.

"Getting it here was kind of a joke," said Julie Tyler, Michael's Tyler's mother.

The structure was successful on its first try, which teacher Matt Lund explained gave credibility to the movie.

"It just goes to show, Indiana Jones? It's correct," he said while checking the melon for cracks. "You can survive a fall."

Lund, who teachers the course with Steve Manwaring, said he does a Halloween version of the activity with pumpkins in his regular science classes. He said each year the students use similar techniques, but the Indiana Jones tower was something original.

"I did not think that was actually going to survive," he said.

The majority of the students' designs were successful on repeat attempts. The first device to be tested, a cardboard box filled with foam and elastics, managed to produce an intact melon on its third and final try, drawing cheers from its makers Tammy Vu and Lyn Dao.

The class, made possible by a Utah Science Technology and Research or USTAR grant, blends hands-on laboratory activities with classroom lectures and instruction. Students attend four days a week, eight hours a day, Lund said, and earn the equivalent of a full year's science credit.

Data was gathered from the watermelon drop, such as watermelon weight and the time it took to fall the approximately 30 feet from the school's roof. Lund said the information would be used in the classroom to calculate speed and force.

"We use that data to talk about other things," he said.

The largest watermelon, nicknamed "Papa Bear" by the students, weighed about 30 pounds and was successfully caught by a rig of tarps and elastic chords built by James Richards-Khong. His mother, Chris Richards-Khong, is Copper Hills' assistant principal and attended Friday's activity.

"If I would've taken this physics class in high school I would've really liked it," she said.

James tested his design at home for about a week, drawing curious looks from passersby.

"Our neighbors think we're a little weird because he's been on top of the garage throwing things off," she said.

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com