Utah State University’s Physics Day at Lagoon becomes a 30-something this year. Like a lot of 30-year-olds, Physics Day has settled into a successful career path, with significant accomplishments under its belt. For one, it’s likely the largest and longest-running STEM event of the Intermountain West.
“After all, what better physics laboratory to entice teens than an amusement park?” asks USU Physics Professor J.R. Dennison, a founder and long-time coordinator of the annual event.
At best estimate, more than 150,000 aspiring scientists have participated in the yearly day of gut-churning science fun at Davis County’s über-playground since the program’s 1990 inception. For this year’s May 17 gathering, which is coordinated by the USU Department of Physics and Idaho National Laboratory, with support from a host of public and private sponsors, nearly 10,000 teens from Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada and beyond, along with their teachers, are expected to ‘geek out’ at the Farmington, Utah park.
Among the most popular activities, initiated in 2005, is the “Sky Drop Contest,” where Physics Day participants drop raw eggs, encased in protective containers of each student’s design, from the gondola-style transport Sky Ride to a ground-level Aggie Bull’s Eye target more than 30 feet below. (Dozens upon dozens of eggs have plunged to their splattered doom – maybe an Aggie physicist can surmise how far those eggs, if lined up, could stretch around the amusement park? By the way, Physics Day volunteers say only about 25 percent survive the fall. Go, Eggies!)
Egg drop activities are nothing new. They’re a staple of physics classrooms and STEM events throughout the world. Yet, USU Physics Day’s egg drop offers a unique twist or two, thanks to Physics alumna Amanda Otterstrom (BS’05), who took on the task, as an undergrad, of developing specific procedures, rules and instructions for the competition of oval-shaped flight vehicles.
“When Dr. Dennison asked if I’d be interested in designing an event for Physics Day, I said, ‘Of course!’” Otterstrom recalls. “’Free tickets to Lagoon, homework to ride roller coasters? Sign me up!’”
What the Stockton, Utah native thought would be an easy activity to organize turned into a formidable project. She discovered a myriad of details, decisions and design effort that would be required to scale a “simple” STEM activity up to large-event implementation. First order of business? Convincing Lagoon officials to allow students to drop something from a high, overhead ride.
“I’d been disappointed in egg drops of my childhood, because I’d always worked so hard to engineer my creation, only to hand it off to an adult, when the big day came to test its function,” Otterstrom says. “When I designed the Sky Drop, it was intentional that the student participates at every point.”
With safety protocols in place, including a designated “bull’s eye” landing area, she convinced officials to allow the usually prohibited releases.
“The bull’s eye provides an added challenge,” Otterstrom says. “Not only are students learning about engineering principles that will allow them to create a container to protect a raw egg. They’re also thinking about perception, acceleration and accuracy.”
The competition gets very challenging, when you have to account for dropping an egg from a moving vehicle, Dennison says.
“That means you have to think about more than protecting the egg as you design your container,” he says. “Bouncy things are a bad idea because even if it strikes the target, it will likely rebound far away. If you make something that sticks, like clay, it might hit the target, but you could have a big jerk.”
(“Jerk,” Dennison says, is a “real” physics word meaning “change in acceleration” – as in “free fall to a dead stop.”)
And then, he says, there’s the bombardier effect.
“If a student waits to drop their container when they are directly over the target, the container will continue to move forward as it falls to the ground and will impact well beyond target center,” Dennison explains. “As any good bombardier – or physics student – knows, to get a payload to land accurately on a target depends on how fast you’re going, how high above the target you are, wind speed and atmospheric pressure, among other factors.”
The professor calls parachutes “a bad idea, because you can’t control where they’ll cause the container to land.”
But Otterstrom, who is completing a master’s program in physics education at Weber State, disagrees.
“I purposely allowed parachutes, because SpaceX reusable rockets were just a crazy idea at the time,” she says. “Who knows? The next Elon Musk may show up at Physics Day and figure out how to get a parachute to land on a bull’s eye.”
Then there’s the result. Otterstrom designed the activity so each student could retrieve their container, open it and see for themselves how the fragile cargo fared.
Another challenge Otterstrom tackled was determining how many volunteers it would take to successfully run the event.
“For the first year, we had 15 volunteers and we needed every single one of them to help our 300-student activity run smoothly,” she says. “Nowadays, more than 1,000 teens participate, so it takes a lot more hands on deck at every step. It’s a big undertaking in a short amount of time.”
Because Lagoon allows closure of the area around the bull’s-eye target only from 11:30 am-1:30 pm, participants, the number of which grows each year, must be on time and ready to move efficiently through the ride line.
Why is the activity so popular?
“Why? Because you’re on a ride, it’s messy and you get to break things,” Dennison says. “Applications of smart physics greatly enhances your chances of winning, though there’s still an element of blind luck.”
“I think it’s popular because each student gets to do every part of the experiment,” Otterstrom adds. “It’s easy – though doing it well can be challenging – it’s inexpensive and interesting to participate in, whether you’re just starting to learn about science or you’re an advanced physics student.”
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