Science & Technology

In Its 35th Year, USU Physics Day at Lagoon Delivers Thrills, Chills, STEM Learning Fun

More than 9,000 teens from throughout the Intermountain West descended on the Davis County amusement park during Utah State's popular outreach event.

By Mary-Ann Muffoletto |

More than 9,000 middle school and high school students descended on Utah's Lagoon amusement park May 10 for USU Physics Day 2024. Aspiring scientists and engineers explored basic physics principles while zooming through roller coaster loops, twirling in circles and soaring to gut-churning heights. The annual event is coordinated by the USU Department of Physics and Idaho National Laboratory. (Photo Credit: USU/M. Muffoletto)

Participants arriving at Utah’s Lagoon Amusement Park Friday morning, May 10, for Utah State University’s 2024 Physics Day braved wind gusts up to 55 miles per hour. A high-wind warning kept some favorite rides idle — at least during the morning — but the windy conditions failed to spoil the long-anticipated fun for some 9,200 teens from Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada and Arizona ready for a day of gut-churning STEM learning.

Among the rides marking time was the Sky Ride, the vehicle for Physics Day’s popular Egg Drop Contest. Competitors drop a raw egg in a protective container of their own design from a 60-foot-high ski-lift-type chair to a ground target trying, not always successfully, to keep the delicate payload intact.

“Our participants were ready with all manner of engineering creations, so we had to think fast,” said USU Physics Professor J.R. Dennison, a Physics Day founder and longtime coordinator of the event. “Lagoon Marketing Director Madison O’Bagy and her team quickly came to our rescue, offering an alternative, which was dropping eggs from a tall bridge walkway at the Lagoona Beach attraction.”

The results were great, Dennison says.

“It was a different experience, as teens released eggs from a stationary, rather than moving, launch site, but still challenging and a lot of fun,” he says. “We didn’t miss a beat.”

Winds calmed by midday, and Lagoon was able to open most of its roller coasters and other rides, allowing Physics Day participants to measure G-forces with wrist accelerometers on the Colossus Fire Dragon roller coaster and to consider the science behind 3-D glasses while shooting at creepy creatures on Lagoon’s new Primordial roller coaster.

“I was impressed by the joy and excitement of Physics Day participants,” said Brynja Kohler, associate dean for undergraduate program and services in USU’s College of Science and an event volunteer. “Students brought wonderfully creative entries for the egg drop, logo design, ride design and other competitions. It was fun to see how the teens combined their individual interests and passions together with physics.”

Thirteen three-person teams from high schools throughout the Intermountain West participated in the day’s academic Physics Bowl. The winning team was from Cache Valley’s Green Canyon High School, coached by AP Physics teacher and USU alum Mark Cowley (BS’04). A team from Utah’s American Fork High School took second place, and another team from Green Canyon, also coached by Cowley, captured third place.

“As a physics teacher, I think it’s important to help students understand and see the growth they experience by being in an upper-level, advanced placement class,” Cowley said. “Something like the Physics Bowl is an opportunity to realize they have learned a ton of material over the course of the year. The competition gives students the confidence to see they are ready to take the next step and chase their dreams.”

Members of the first place Green Canyon team each received $4,000 scholarships to Utah State, $1,000 per year for four years, on top of any other USU academic scholarships they may be awarded. Members of the second place American Fork team each received $2,000 USU scholarships, $500 per year for four years.

Dennison says the day’s turnout exceeded expectations.

“We’re seeing a return to pre-pandemic numbers and that’s a very welcome outcome,” he said. “This was our 35th year and we’re ecstatic that we’ve been able to keep the momentum going. We’re very grateful to Lagoon and to our sponsors, as well as the volunteers who participate from our industry partners and from USU’s colleges of science, engineering and education. It takes a lot of generous people to make this annual event possible.”

Coordinated by USU’s Department of Physics and Idaho National Laboratory, Physics Day is sponsored by Lagoon and a host of private and public sponsors.

A team from Cache Valley, Utah's Green Canyon High School, captured first place in USU Physics Day’s academic Physics Bowl. Team members received four-year scholarships to Utah State. From left, USU Physics Department Head Jan Sojka; Green Canyon scholars Kade Wilson, Charlie Kippen and Rawl Balling, accompanied by Green Canyon physics teacher and USU alum Mark Cowley, BS’04; and USU Science Associate Dean Brynja Kohler. (Photo Credit: USU/M. Muffoletto)


Mary-Ann Muffoletto
Public Relations Specialist
College of Science


J.R. Dennison
Department of Physics


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