Learning Centripetal Force at the Amusement Park

You learn something new every day!
You learn something new every day!

Updated August 01st, 2018

The park sprawls out in front of me. My husband and youngest son share one seat. My brother, his little boy and my older son sit in the seat behind me. In the millisecond that we lean there, balanced over the precipice, I notice the fear intermingled with excitement. I raise my hands and beckon Bryce to do the same. He shakes his head, gripping the bar tightly. Then...we're off!

The coaster around the track, spinning and jerking us this way and that. The centripetal force around the curves squeeze us together, eliciting a scream from the younger kids. Even over the hollering and the sound of the metal clanking against the tracks, I can hear my brother laughing - the first good laugh he's had in a long time.

When the roller coaster comes to a stop, I scrape the bottom of my brain trying to remember the centripetal force formula so I can explain it to the kids. This was, after all, supposed to be an educational trip to the amusement park. But I can't remember the math of centripetal force - or even how to explain centripetal force vs centrifugal force, especially underneath all the sights and sounds of the park.

The Physics of Everything

I am a high school physics teacher. I spend my days in front of a classroom of teenagers who have decided they already know it all. I spout on about Newton's Laws, Einstein's theories and the Atomic Theory while most of the kids try to stay busy pretending to listen. It's not that I'm a boring teacher, but the way that schools are set up today require a certain amount of textbook knowledge and very little practical use.

This year, I took the senior physics class on a field trip to King's Island - home to dozens of roller coasters and specialized rides filled to the brim with physics and math topics. They could learn about friction, projectile motion, gravity and centripetal force, all while having fun at one of the best amusement parks in the country.

The Old Ways of Science

It wasn't always practical to take an entire science class to the amusement park. Old-fashioned classrooms, where students sat at desks all day, taking notes on paper and writing formulae on the dusty chalkboard, brought many fine scientists into the field of physics, math, and chemistry. These scientists learned the formulae, laws, and hypotheses during their education, and then went out to apply what they learned.

Albert Einstein wasn't one of those old-fashioned scientists, even though he lived back in an age where people were still getting used to photography and electricity. Einstein, although now perceived as the genius that he was, didn't receive that designation while in school. He actually flunked out of college and took work at a patent office.

At the patent office, he had the time to read freely on new theories, and that's where he came up with his Theory of Relativity and Gravitation. Much of his major work was published while he still worked at the patent office.

New Do-able Science

There seems to be a correlation between more children being diagnosed with Attention Disorders and immersible classrooms. The modern student of eight or nine is inattentive, energetic and bored easily. Science teachers that don't attempt to entertain their students or involve them in direct learning of the subject often find themselves teaching the same students the same topic over and over again. Writing a centripetal force formula on the dry erase board as an introduction to centripetal force is about as productive as calling off a rocket launch after the rocket has already been shot off.

I try to bring an interesting component to every physics class I teach. We either watch a video, conduct an experiment or split into groups and play a game that forces students to think about the topic we are covering that day. We made homemade catapults to study projectile motion and had a heating contest when we learned about light and energy. I know we have to cover particular topics for the yearly testing, but at least my students will know that physics can be fun.

Gearing Up for a Lesson on Centripetal Force vs. Centrifugal Force

I don't know yet how I'll make learning physics more fun in the future. I might bring them to King's Island to learn the difference between centripetal force and centrifugal force. The merry-go-round, the ferris wheel, or maybe the fastest roller coaster in the world - the choices are infinite. Physics is all around us. It's my job as a physics teacher to show students that physics is at work in everything we do.

Did you walk to school today? Than you better thank the frictional force. Were you able to walk without floating away? Thank gravity. You walked into the school through a door. Did you have to push the door open? Thank the laws of force!

I spent the rest of the day with my brother and kids just enjoying the park. We rode the bumper cars, got soaked on the log ride and gorged ourselves on pop and sweets. I was tempted to introduce my kids to the laws of physics as we walked, but decided not to bother their brains with important lessons today. They would be older soon, taking science in school. If they had a teacher like me, they would be learning all about science.

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