Posted: 14 May 2014

Friday, May 16, USU Physics Day at Lagoon celebrates its 25th anniversary. More than 6,000 teens will descend on the Utah amusement park for a day of hands-on science fun.

USU physics professor J.R. Dennison, right, talks with a volunteer at the 2013 Physics Day. A founder of the long-running science outreach event, Dennison says he hopes to meet ‘children of Physics Day alumni’ at this year’s 25-year celebration.

“Mighty oaks from little acorns grow” is an apt description of Utah State University Physics Day at Lagoon, which marks its 25th anniversary Friday, May 16. More than 100,000 teens have participated in the annual event that has grown into the Intermountain West’s largest and longest-running STEM outreach event.


“I don’t know where the time has gone,” says J.R. Dennison, professor in USU’s Department of Physics, who was among the founders of the yearly gathering and has nurtured the program, step by step, for a quarter of a century.


In what’s become a rite of spring, more than 6,000 teens and teachers from Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Nevada will transform Davis County’s überplayground into a giant laboratory this Friday to explore such basic physics concepts as gravity, projectile motion, centrifugal force and energy.  


“What better laboratory to entice young people than an amusement park?” Dennison says.


And that was exactly the question he and USU colleagues Gil Moore, who received an honorary doctorate from Utah State in 2014, and USU alum Teresa Burns, PhD’94 posed in 1990, when the trio led a summer workshop for middle and high school teachers.


“We were brainstorming ways to spark students’ interest in science and demonstrate abstract concepts in a fun and familiar way,” Dennison says. “Amusement park physics was just the ticket and we had the perfect venue in mind.”


At this year’s event, Dennison will, once again, convene a roundtable of educators, including representatives from the Utah Governor’s Office and the Utah State Office of Education, to discuss science outreach and ways to make Physics Day even more effective.


“But we won’t spend the entire day sitting around talking – we’ll have some science fun, too,” he says.


Dennison has invited roundtable participants to join with teens in competing in the day’s popular Sky Drop contest, which involves dropping a raw egg in a protective container of the competitor’s own design from the park’s Sky Ride.

Students will also display ideas for thrilling rides of the future, vie in a robotics grudge match and measure G-forces as they zoom through roller coaster loops. Middle and high school teams will compete in an engineering challenge to design and build energy-generating windmills with a chance to advance to the national MESA USA Wind Energy Challenge.


Along with the day’s amusements, nearly 100 aspiring Aggies in three-person teams will engage in the Physics Bowl competition for more than $120,000 in scholarship awards. Six students in the top two teams will receive full, four-year scholarships to USU, along with two semesters of free textbooks.


An army of USU students, faculty and staff volunteers, along with corporate and community sponsors, work year-long to produce the day’s magic.


“It’s a labor of love,” says USU student Milo Maughan, Physics Day alum, who has coordinated the event for the past three years. “It’s hands-on, it’s exciting and it’s a lot of fun interacting with all the students, teachers and volunteers.”


Physics Day alumni include dozens of USU’s top students –including several Goldwater Scholars – as well as Winter Olympic champions Julia Mancuso and Ted Ligety, who participated in the 2000 event as classmates at Park City, Utah’s Winter Sports School.


But who would Maughan and Dennison like to meet on this silver anniversary?


“We’d like to meet some second generation Physics Day participants,” Dennison says. “That is, we’d like to meet students whose parents are Physics Day alumni.”


Related Links

“’Even More Apps for That’ at USU Physics Day at Lagoon,” Utah State Today

“Student at the Helm, USU Ready for 2012 Physics Day at Lagoon,” Utah State Today

USU Department of Physics 

USU College of Science


Contact: J.R. Dennison, 435-797-2936,

Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517,