When you’re hurtling down the tracks of a roller coaster with the wind and your fellow passengers screaming in your ears, physics is probably not the first topic on your mind.
But it’s physics that designs the ride and makes it safe, operational, and depending how you roll at amusement parks – a lot of fun.
To strengthen their classroom skills by testing precisely how park rides thrill their riders, students in PHYS 310 Mechanics headed up to Six Flags Great Escape in Lake George as part of a laboratory project on reviewing introductory physics. The goal of the October 2 outing was to upskill the popular amusement park physics programs that many high schools participate in each year, according to George Hassel, Ph.D., teaching assistant professor of physics and astronomy.
“The lab provides exciting examples of the concepts that are covered in class,” said Hassel. “The major difference was that instead of receiving a workbook with detailed instructions, Siena students had the responsibility of deciding which rides they wanted to investigate, which conceptual models to apply, and then devising a plan for measuring data.”
Using an app called phyphox and other tools, the students had to construct a simplified model system for test runs and interpret their collected data and any deviations from expectations. They were faced with some additional challenges on site, including how to modify their plan if the chosen rides were not operational.
Aidan Millens ’24 thought the trip was a huge success.
“We were able to test our experiments by comparing our predicted values, calculated in the classroom, to our measured values taken there at the park,” he said. “In the end, our measurements were relatively close to what we calculated. It also didn't hurt to have a little fun once our measurements were complete.”
Rose Finn, Ph.D., professor of physics, said the mechanics course covers force and motion, but sometimes the material and the mathematical tools they use can seem abstract.
“The beauty of amusement parks is that students can feel the concepts they are studying, like acceleration,” said Finn. “In the long run I think this will help them strengthen their intuition and make stronger connections between theory and the physical world.”
Sara Rizvi ’24 shared that before the field trip, the physics students all made models of the rides and investigated different concepts such as centripetal acceleration and free fall, while Taryn Asselin ’24 agreed that the opportunity to take the concepts learned in the classroom and apply them to the real world is important in understanding the mechanics we all experience in everyday life.
“It was a super fun experience that was very beneficial and I hope future physics and applied physics students get to have this same out of the classroom learning opportunity,” she said.
What about students who were not necessarily fans of amusement park rides? Their learning experience was twofold.
“I personally do not like roller coasters, so I took this trip as an opportunity to get better at riding them,” said Tony Hunt ‘24. “Each one we went on I was screaming my head off while my teammates were just chilling. My group got the data we needed to for each ride and we had a good time. Did I have fun? Yes. Did I like doing physics on the trip? Yes. Did I get over my fear of roller coasters? My screams say otherwise.”