Amusement Park Physics, by Carole Escobar, (Ed)

Since the mid-eighties, the interest in amusement park physics has nearly exploded in the US. More widespread use followed the NSF grant to Carolyn Sumners at the the University of Houston, who developed some activities and the spread them around at various meetings. From earlier modest starts, where enthusiastic teachers brought their class to a nearby park, physics and science days have been arranged, e.g. at Six Flags over Georgia and at Paramount's Great America in California and are now offered in many parks around the US.

This handbook has its roots in a 1986 workshop of the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT). It has inspired hundreds of thousands of students and teachers to study physics in the amusement park. It describes briefly the early developments, and includes a number of reprints from the AAPT journal "The Physics Teacher". It also includes a section about different types of accelerometers and a student workbook, including activities, not only in the park, but also before the visit, as well as on the bus. A large number of exercise problems are provided, including questions to prompt reasoning and understanding. The book starts out with a teachers' checklist, which is certainly helpful - taking a class to a science day requires considerable planning!

These reprint collection at the end of the handbook paper provides both detailed mathematical analysis of several common rides [1,2], a description of how science day activities may look for a class, and how the students took on various tasks (including Fermi questions) [3]. It also includes a presentation [4] on organising a science day, including a competition, and a 1995 paper [5] describing the development of electronic accelerometer measurements in the rides. The reprints represent various traditions on whether to discuss centrifugal or centripetal forces. The reprints illustrates the rapid development of electronic measurement techniques, but also reflect how rides have developed over the last decades. However, since the book is essentially 11 years old, much technological development, both in ride and measurement technology, as well as data processing remains unexplored.

The AAPT Amusement Park Physics book certainly includes much useful material. Is anything missing? First, I think that today, no resource on amusement park physics can be considered complete without at least a limited collection of WWW-resources. However, the AAPT book, is essentially a reprint of older material, and the only WWW-adress provided is to the source of the cover picture. Much of the material in the book is actually available on-line. A short list of links that are very useful to the teacher wishing to use amusement park examples in physics teaching is given in the box, below. In addition, I would have liked to see more discussion of the potential for real-time teacher-student interaction close to the rides.

What is also missing is a more careful consideration of safety issues. Having witnessed students (and sometimes teachers) attempting to bring all sorts of unsuitable items onto rides I think that this item cannot be sufficiently stressed. (One of the pictures in the reprint collection might make a safety official somewhat concerned.) There is quite a difference between bringing a small group of your own students that you know and trust, and inviting other groups of students. A detailed list of rules to be signed by all teachers, students and parents involved may be useful. Although a park may be prepared to relax some of the ordinary rules in connection with a science day, high elevations and speeds, strong forces and large energies are just as potentially dangerous as always: Newton's laws are non-negotiable.

  1. Carole Escobar (1990) Amusement Park Physics, The Physics Teacher 28 446-54
  2. John L. Roeder (1975) Physics and the Amusement Park, The Physics Teacher 13 327-32
  3. George Taylor, Joseph Page, Murry Bentley and Diana Lossner (1984) A physics laboratory at Six Flags Over Georgia, The Physics Teacher 22 361-7
  4. John McGehee (1988) Physics Students' Day at Six Flags Magic Mountain, The Physics Teacher 26 12-7
  5. Charles Reno and Robert R. Speers (1995) Accelerometer Measurements in the Amusement Park, The Physics Teacher 33 382-4