Computer Science And … Halloween?

By Dan Wang
Univ. Communications

This October, students in a computer science class were given an unlikely task: to construct a spear out of only naturally occurring materials that would be vigorous enough to repel a tiger attack. To test the effectiveness of their spears, they demonstrated on pumpkins, first decorating them and then setting them up to be stabbed.  A successful spear would go through an entire pumpkin, out the other side, and into an arrow target.

For students in CSC 199: Creative Computing, stabbing a pumpkin is actually a natural next step, as the class has many offbeat assignments. Past projects have included estimating the cost of building a mile-high skyscraper in lower Manhattan, figuring out the total distance traveled by a red blood cell throughout its lifetime, and approximating the amount of time it would take for the atmosphere to become unbreathable if the process of photosynthesis ceased.

Senior Alex Silverman wrapped a sharp piece of stone with vines to create a spear point, and mounted it on a large stick. His thrust managed to penetrate the skin of the pumpkin. “This is the first computer science class in which I’ve had to stab a pumpkin with a spear,” he remarked. “It’s harder than it looks.”

What is this assignment trying to teach? “It’s partly about Halloween, and partly about illustrating the importance of cultural infrastructure even at the Paleolithic level,” Professor Randal Nelson explained. “Few people appreciate how hard it is to get by without tools.”

After the failure of most spears to go through the entire pumpkin, a consensus emerged in the class: It’s really difficult to survive in Paleo-era.

In the Photo: Alex Feiszli ’14 tests his homemade spear.