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Caltech's day of mind games, amusements and crossbows

May 24, 2012 |  6:15 pm

Laura Conwill and other Caltech seniors were up all night Wednesday preparing for the big day on campus: Not finals or graduation, but Ditch Day.

Thursday morning they went from dorm to dorm, rousing undergraduates to the annual, cerebral craziness. Classes were canceled and odd looking contraptions sprang up amid the olive trees and stately buildings.

Student teams, identified by their T-shirts, spent the day tackling a series of “stacks,” or challenges, that seniors had worked weeks preparing in secret. The stacks usually take the form of an intellectual puzzle but can also be a physical prank, like turning yourself into a human bowling ball to see how many plastic bottles you can knock down while lying prone on a rolling skateboard.

The Ditch Day tradition began in the early 1930s, when seniors ditched classes and stacked their rooms with furniture to keep out pranksters while they were playing off campus.

Alumni return for the day and an institution whose faculty and graduates have collected 32 Nobel Prizes gets a little silly.

“There’s no actual winner,” said Conwill, a computer science major from Oregon who is headed for a job at Microsoft after she graduates next month. “You just go through a series of puzzles. It’s all for fun.”

She was explaining a stack that was hanging from a breezeway: Using pulleys, students hoisted a piece of clear plastic on which sat a ball. The ball then dropped into a suspended box, triggering a mechanism inside that released a second ball, a tennis ball, whose insides held a clue to another stack elsewhere on campus. The clue read: "Dr. Strange."

Elsewhere, sophomore Josh Fromm, an electrical engineering major from Nebraska, had worked with his team to assemble a 3-D version of a popular board game and figure out the message it contained. "We got very close," he said.

It was easy to spot Alison Parisian’s teammates. They were wearing black capes and holding weapons from a morning tournament, including a crossbow that shot tennis balls. “People get so excited the week before,” said Parisian, a junior biology major from Vacaville.

Even though the date is a secret to all but the senior class, everybody knows it’s approaching when the seniors get busy.

Ditch Day ends when an old cannon is fired in a campus quad and the teams pick up prizes ranging from pizza to tickets for a taping of "The Tonight Show."

Friday it’s back to less outlandish mind work.

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-- Bettina Boxall

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