Thrill Seeking Physics

April 15, 2019 at 12:22 PM

Whilst their peers were at College getting on with their school work in class, our Year 13 NCEA and IB Diploma Physics students took their learning offsite for a morning at the end of term to hang upside down, fall from great heights and crash into one another, all in the name of physics! 

One of the highlights of the science year for our Year 13 physics students is the practical field trip to Rainbow’s End to prepare for an internal physics assessment. Whilst an adventure park may seem an odd choice of ‘classroom,’ the rides are more than just thrill-seeking. To experience physics in action while having a bit of fun was a golden opportunity for the students to learn more about simple harmonic motion, gravitation, the interchange between potential and kinetic energy, momentum, impulse and other physics concepts. 

With a vertical and a horizontal accelerometer strapped to their wrists, and a stopwatch, calculator and pen to take measurements and record results, our groups of NCEA and IB Diploma physics students set out at Rainbow’s End to complete a large range of tasks that included a Roller Coaster, the Fear Fall, Dodgem Cars, a Log Flume and the ominously named ‘Invader’ as part of their equipment list! 

If you are wondering how a fun park and physics go hand in hand, take the roller coaster as a prime example. More than just a thrill ride, this is an excellent illustration of the laws of physics in operation. Roller coasters are pulled to the top of the highest hill on the track and then released. A coaster gains gravitational potential energy as it is pulled to the top but this changes to kinetic energy as the coaster begins its descent. Gravity and friction control the rest of the ride. 

Ideas that physics students might ponder are: ‘Why don’t the cars of a roller coaster fly off the track? Why don’t the passengers fly out of the cars? How high does the first hill of a roller coaster have to be in order to complete the ride? What physical laws determine how many hills, curves, and loops a roller coaster track can have?’ 

Dodgem Cars bring Newton’s third law of motion into play (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction). The Fear Fall takes into account Galileo’s classic experiments that led to the finding that all objects fall at the same rate, regardless of their mass. As for the ‘Invader,’ students were tasked with calculating the maximum centripetal acceleration! 

If you are still wondering about where the unusual choice of classroom fits into the curriculum, rest assured! As soon as the ride was over, groups of students could be seen recording results, arguing their findings and working collaboratively to calculate a result. On descending the Fear Fall – a vertical drop from on high – the students were asked to measure the ‘time taken with uncertainty’ for the car to travel a certain distance using the formula: d = vit + ½ at 2 to calculate the distance (d) with uncertainty travelled by the car during this time. g = 9.8 m s -2, vi = 0 m s-1. Other visitors to the park only stopped long enough to consider whether they’d enjoyed the ride or not! 

It could be fair to say, however, that the accuracy of some of the acceleration measurements taken on the Fear Fall or Roller Coaster may be doubtful in some cases - the students needed to have their eyes open, not closed in fear, in order to take accurate measurements! There was no question that the students really enjoyed the experience – and learnt a great deal in the process!


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