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Physics Class Turns into a Day at the Park

North Park Students Study the Physics of Amusement Parks

A physics of amusement parks course brings the study of forces and formulas to life

CHICAGO, IL (July 28, 2009) – When students in Linda McDonald’s mini-term physics class feel their stomachs getting queasy, the problem may not be related to a test. More likely, it’s because they’re having a good time.

Each summer, McDonald teaches Amusement Park Physics. Well, that’s what the thrice-weekly lab session is called. The regular class of daily lectures carries the more mundane and intimidating moniker, “Conceptual Physics.”

McDonald designed the course so that it integrates the physics issues that are at play on amusement park rides. The final week of class includes a one-day trip to Great America for fieldwork.

As part of their studies, students will build a rollercoaster using K’NEX sets and then use them to study how various forces work with or against each other. After all, there are reasons why rollercoaster loops are in the shape of teardrops and not perfect circles. The students will also engage in computer modeling as well as other projects.

“If the world were perfect, we would just build a rollercoaster at North Park, but (Executive Vice President) Carl Balsam’s not too keen on the insurance implications,” McDonald says with a laugh.

Amusement parks provide thrills by tricking the senses, she adds. “They lead people to pay attention to pseudo feelings rather than what is really happening. People clutch tightly on ride thinking they are going to be slung off, when actually they can relax and nothing is going to happen.”

While at Great America, the students are constantly measuring, observing, and calculating. North Park has purchased a special vest for next year that will hold more advanced instruments and enable students to take more precise measurements while they are being whipped around.

The class is popular with non-science majors who are often otherwise intimidated by physics or the math that is required. “They don’t realize you can have fun in science,” says McDonald. A good number of the students are education majors, so she spends time discussing with them how they can teach physics to their students in a way that is engaging.

Not all of the students have to do work at Great America. They can do it at another park or even at a carnival. An entirely separate class could be built around “carnie physics,” she says.

McDonald has no problem filling another class she offers during the regular school year—Physics of Sports.

Each year, she surveys the students on the first day of class to see what sports they are interested in and incorporates those into the semester’s work. “It’s a lot more fun to study about torque when you’re talking about rugby,” McDonald says. “Because I tailor the class to include sports the students are interested in, the class is different every year.”

McDonald took a sabbatical this past spring to work on a textbook she is writing about teaching sports and physics.

“I tell students that the same skills that make athletes good are the things that are needed in science—practice, focus, and the ability to break things down into parts,” she explains. “I want students to realize that what I tell them is just a workout for their brain instead of their biceps.”