Supersonic pingpong gun helps break barriers to engineering education

Mark French had a big dream in January of 2013. With a subsonic pingpong gun already built, French wanted to take the idea to a whole new level. So French and his team created a supersonic pingpong gun, which can shoot a pingpong ball faster than the speed of sound.

His team consisted of Ph.D. students Craig Zehrung and Jim Stratton. Davin Huston, a continuing lecturer of electrical and computer engineering technology, watched over the tests as they were performed.

“I just wanted to see if it could be done really. I had about six or seven years with the subsonic gun so it was time to try something different,” said French, an associate professor of mechanical engineering technology (MET).

He also wanted to get more kids interested and involved in MET and draw them to the College of Technology in general.

“In a way, it’s an aspect that they would study while majoring in MET,” French said.

When the supersonic pingpong gun was first introduced, French had published a small journal entry onto a physics website and posted a video to YouTube. By the next week, he had received thousands of YouTube hits, phone calls and hundreds of emails. Even news crews were coming to document the new invention.

The online video even ended up going viral, bringing more attention to the Department of Mechanical Engineering Technology and the College of Technology at Purdue.

“The subsonic gun was able to shoot a pingpong ball through a pop can, but the supersonic gun can shoot a ball clean through five pop cans and even a pingpong paddle,” French said.

Though the wow factor of the gun is the main use, it has heightened the interest of engineering and science in general on and off campus.

The supersonic gun isn’t allowed to be used in class because of how much power is behind it. The gun has to be set off in a very controlled space. The subsonic gun, however, produces the same interest from potential students.

“With either one, no one expects a pingpong ball to have that much force and power. It’s a great way to surprise the students and really spark their interest in what I’m teaching. You get to see all the chattering and excitement, and it just really creates a great teachable moment,” said French. “At that point I can introduce vacuums and stuff like that. I wouldn’t be able to teach those things if I hadn’t caught their interest with the pingpong gun.”

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