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Roller Coaster Ride Offers Unique Physics Lesson

Students prepare to ride the roller coaster during Physics Day at Six Flags America amusement park in Maryland.

Students examine science behind the thrill rides

​Hundreds of teenagers push past security guards and police at the Six Flags America amusement park in Maryland, and make a dash for the roller coasters.

They are here for the one day a year the amusement park is closed to the general public, so that the roller coasters and other thrill rides can become tools in a unique learning experience.

It's called Physics Day and to complete their assignments, the students are required to ride.

“My teaching philosophy for physics is that they need to see it, touch it, do it,” says teacher Sonia Faletti. “You don’t learn physics by listening.”

Faletti teaches physics at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, Virginia. She is here with her honors students. Today, they get to experience what they studied in class.

Faletti uses amusement park videos throughout the year. Her students have done the math problems and diagrams, explaining the physics behind the rides. Today they carry instruments to help them do their own calculations.

One is called an accelerometer, which measures the force of gravity on the roller coaster. Another is a protractor to measure centripetal force on the circle rides.

A more sophisticated device, worn securely in a vest, records and displays graphs on a computer tablet.

“You can get the ups and downs of the ride from the barometer readings,” Faletti says. “You can correlate the 'Okay, I felt heavy here. That was the dip.' Or 'I felt weightless at this point, I was going over the hill.'”

And there are plenty of dips and hills and twists and loops in the dozens of rides in the park.

Student Jessica Taylor says the experience has made her realize that physics is more than mathematical equations. “Whenever I am on the ride, I think about the people that had to design it and the engineers that have to do all of the math behind it.”

Her classmate, Kate Fogarty, says knowing the science behind the rides doesn't make them any less fun. “I think it is even more fun, actually, because you get to understand what is happening and why you don’t fall out of your seat.”

And that's the main point of the outing. A trip to Six Flags probably will not inspire many students to become engineers, teacher Sonia Faletti says, but at least they'll always think of physics whenever they ride a roller coaster.