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Smartphone Physics at Amusement Parks

Spring is well underway, and many secondary physics teachers have already or will soon take their students on the typical rite-of-passage to an amusement park. Across eight academic years of high school teaching, including my practical year, I took my students to Six Flags preceded by detailed preparation for their end-of-year project.

Being from central Illinois, I took a lot of inspiration from the work of the St. Louis Area Physics Teachers' (SLAPT) resources. SLAPT's resources include both "packets" students can complete at corresponding rides as well as detailed acceleration and barometer data sets that students can use for analysis and comparing to the geometry of the ride. Students frequently can fashion qualitative accelerometers from lead masses and springs or rubber bands suspended in thin tubes, but collecting data along a ride (especially on a roller coaster where such items are not permitted) requires more advanced tools. Although there are a variety of commercial hardware probes available for purchase that allow students to collect live acceleration and pressure data on the rides, this wasn't an option for me due to the high cost of the equipment and the massive numbers of students I took with me (upwards of 125 of my own students, and more than 300 from my single school). Even with school equipment, the logistics of sharing on a field day made it impossible. Regardless, few hardware probes have interfaces that allow students to easily see the data without the use of a computer or wireless access, limiting their utility.

Unable to have students collect live data, I prepared my students to collect distance, altitude, speed, and acceleration data with their measured "paces" and by using timers and a few known measurements provided by Six Flags. Granted, my own students often failed to accurately collect the data necessary to answer all of the questions in their assignments packets, which is why I asked my husband to develop our first data collection app, Physics Toolbox Accelerometer, and later, Physics Toolbox Roller Coaster (see the image to the left). Both apps are free, and both are integrated into our free Physics Toolbox Suite, which also includes lots of other features. See details about how I implemented the use of accelerometer data collection and analysis in our The Physics Teacher article, “Analyzing Forces on Amusement Park Rides with Mobile Devices.”

While students might have moaned a bit about the need to actually do work during their outing, well-prepared groups usually found that they could work very efficiently on their data collection and have lots of time for fun (aside from the fun of doing physics)!

Amusement parks offer students the opportunities to apply their learning about the following topics:

  • Constant Velocity

  • Uniform Acceleration (linear and circular)

  • Force Systems

  • Newton's Laws

  • Momentum and Impulse

  • Conservation of Energy

  • Electromagnetism (i.e. linear induction launched roller coasters)

  • Optics (i.e. "fun houses)

Such a rich opportunity for deepening and contextualizing physics learned over the year should not be missed! However, this year, while interacting with thousands of students doing amusement park physics, I found that many students fell into one of two extremes: well-prepared students who were awed by their mastery of contextualized physics, and - more frequently - students who were unprepared and un-engaged from the physics surrounding them.

While looking at the many publications by amusement park physics expert Ann-Marie Pendrill, I came across a brilliant conference proceeding paper by her and her colleagues, "Teacher roles during amusement park visits - insights from observations, interviews, and questionnaires." Frequently, teachers and students are overwhelmed by the logistics of sticking to schedules and getting on rides at the park, that it overshadows the experience they have with the physics. Preparation is essential, and this includes support by science educators who work with amusement parks to prepare - in advance - items such as worksheets and interaction ideas for rides specific to the park, and support in becoming comfortable with data collection technology and analysis skills. Besides Six Flags in the USA, there are a number of websites that provide such supports across Europe, such as "Edupark: The Portal of Educational Activities in the Amusement Parks" and resources for Mirabilandia parks.

In my own case, I asked students to accomplish at least three different projects at the amusement park:

  • Choose a ride that displays significant changes in g-force. Collect g-force (or acceleration) data and create quantitatively accurate force diagrams for the rider at three distinct points. Explain how the rider feels at each point, and use the data and Newton's Laws to justify why.

  • Choose a ride that displays conservation of energy. Estimate/measure the motion kinetic, gravitational potential, and thermal/other energy forms at three points along the ride. Draw pie charts to demonstrate how energy is allocated at each point. Calculate the percent of conserved mechanical energy.

  • Choose a ride that displays uniform circular motion. Collect acceleration data and create a quantitatively accurate force diagram for the rider during uniform circular motion. Calculate centripetal force and tangential velocity.

  • See my Six Flags Project Description and Rubric - feel free to modify it for your own use.

Preparing for an amusement park visit is a learning progression. In my own case, I typically began preparing my students a few weeks in advance. What follows are a number of resources that I created for my own students to be prepared to (1) measure distances along the ground, (2) measure heights / altitude through visual observation, and (3) collect motion information:

  • Learn how to measure distances along the ground

  • Measure off a 10-20 m distance

  • Count average number of steps to cover the given distance

  • Determine the individuals' pace (steps / meter)

  • Learn how to measure altitude visually:

  • Use basic trigonometry

  • Measure "eye-height" to get baseline altitude

  • Measurement Lab WS using Physics Toolbox Orientation

  • Simple method (where distance from the base of the object is known)

  • Complex method (where distance from the base of the object is not known).

  • Practice measuring distances and altitudes by visiting a nearby playground. Park Quest Lab WS

Do you know of any other amusement park physics resources? Have great ideas to share? Pleas write to us at

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