Learning About Magnets, Electricity and Acceleration at the Amusement Park

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After mentioning the Six Flags America Roller Coaster Design Contest earlier this month, I received an invitation to Physics Day at the amusement park. I had to convince my boss I didn’t intend to ride roller coasters all day (unlikely, since I get queasy riding backwards on the Metro), but then I was off to the park on a sunny, warm Friday morning last week.

A couple thousand high school (and a few middle school) students were at the park that day. Their teachers had been provided with an extensive workbook of activities for the kids—such as calculating the acceleration of the bus on their way to the park, determining angles of flight on the Flying Carousel and calculating the power used to take students to the top of the Tower of Doom. Of course, there were plenty of roller-coaster related activities as well. And there were even instructions on how to make a force meter (and, importantly, how to understand it).

In the park, college students from the Society of Physics Students and employees of the American Physical Society were on hand for demonstrations of physics concepts, such as wave motion, conservation of energy and gravity. I learned how to make a simple motor with a battery, nail, neodymium magnet and wire.

But the seven roller coasters and other rides were the real fun. Students could wear a vest with an accelerometer that would track how fast they were moving in three axes (x, y and z; side-to-side, up and down, and forwards and backwards). Once they got off the ride, the data would be downloaded onto laptops and a program called Data Studio that would graph their ride. I had seen similar graphs before (they’re a staple when designing rides in Roller Coaster Tycoon, once one of my favorite computer games), but I was a little surprised that the graphs were messier than the ones from the computer game. I shouldn’t have been though; reality is always more complicated than a simulation.

My favorite geeky moment of the morning, though, was the explanation I received of the Joker’s Jinx roller coaster, the only induction coaster at Six Flags America. I was enjoying the coaster from a purely aesthetic viewpoint—the green and purple coloring was striking, and the cars made a lovely wooshing sound unlike any of the others. Becky Thompson-Flagg, of the American Physical Society, explained to me that the other roller coasters slowly take the cars to the top of a large hill and then rely on gravity for the acceleration that will move the cars through the remaining hills and loops. An induction coaster, however, uses magnets and electricity for acceleration. (An in-depth explanation of linear motors as used in roller coasters can be found here.) Gravity obviously still plays a role, but the main advantage, as I see it, is that there is no long waiting period at the beginning of the ride. Shortly after you move away from the entrance, you’re propelled upward at high speed by the linear motor.

Six Flags America will host a Math and Science Day in May. And while some students will get nothing more out of these days than a bit of fun on the rides, I hope that at least a few will take advantage of the fun to be had in the acts of doing science and maybe get inspired to continue this as they grow up.

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