Science & Technology

USU Physics Day at Lagoon Alumna Returns to Annual Event to Create STEM Learning Magic

By Mary-Ann Muffoletto |

USU Physics Day alumna and 2023 USU graduate Bethany Enger Cheney prepares STEM learning activities for the May 10, 2024 event at Utah's Lagoon amusement park. Some 8,000 teens will descend on Davis County's ├╝ber-playground for a day of thrills, chills and learning fun. [Photo: USU/M. Muffoletto]

As a high school sophomore in 2017, Bethany Enger Cheney reveled in the stomach-churning fun that is Utah State University Physics Day at Lagoon. With thousands of her peers from Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Nevada, the Wasatch High graduate says she “had a blast” riding warp-speed, brain-lurching roller coasters, tilt-a-whirls and drop towers, along with viewing eye-catching science demonstrations.

“It was so entertaining, got my mind working and inspired me to pursue physics study,” said Cheney, who entered USU on a Dean’s Scholarship and completed a bachelor’s degree in physics in December 2023.

Cheney returns to the Farmington, Utah amusement park Friday, May 10, as one of USU Physics Day’s coordinators. Initiated in 1990, the event is one of the region’s largest and longest-running STEM outreach gatherings. Led by USU’s Department of Physics and Idaho National Laboratory, the 2024 event is expected to draw some 8,000 aspiring scientists and engineers to Davis County’s über-playground for a day of thrills, chills and STEM-learning fun.

“I had a class with Physics Professor J.R. Dennison, one of the Physics Day founders, as I was completing my undergrad degree and mentioned I planned to go into high school teaching,” said the Heber City native. “He asked if I’d like to help the event team prepare for and plan new activities for the day-long gathering.”

Cheney, who is now pursuing a master’s degree in secondary teaching, jumped at the opportunity.

Among her first assignments from Dennison? Reviewing and recharging the Physics Day workbooks – one for high schoolers and one for middle school students – that Physics Day participants and their teachers will receive at the event to work through varied STEM activities associated with the amusement park rides.

Perennial favorite workbook activities include using wrist accelerometers while zooming through the loops of the Colossus Fire Dragon roller coaster to measure G-forces and to learn about kinetic energy. Another favorite involves dropping raw eggs – in student-crafted protective containers -- from the 60-foot-high Sky Ride to better understand gravitational potential energy (and to try, not always successfully, to keep the delicate eggs intact.)

“New to the activities is an electromagnetics lesson with Lagoon’s new Primordial ride that helps students learn about reflection, refraction and diffraction,” Cheney said.

Primordial, she explains, is a conventional roller coaster ride featuring a not-so-conventional virtual, interactive adventure. Riders receive a pair of 3-D glasses, before scaling the 84-foot climb into a medieval mountain village, in which they’ll use “gun blasters” while traveling up to 40 miles-per-hour to battle creepy creatures as a mythical queen implores them to save the kingdom’s captured dragon and owl.

“Students will learn how 3-D glasses work and ‘trick’ the brain into seeing a single image with depth,” Cheney said. “With the ride that concludes with a hair-raising backwards drop, this activity demonstrates how light interacts with matter.”

Among the new workbook activities Cheney is most excited about is the collection of “SUN-sational Experiments” that will help students envision the immense size of the Sun.

“We want to keep the momentum going from the excitement of the recent eclipse, while also celebrating NASA’s Heliophysics Big Year,” she said. “This activity isn’t connected to a ride, so it’s something students can do while they’re waiting in line or taking a break.”

The series of experiments involve simple tools – scrap paper with a pinhole, the workbook’s paper grid and a meter stick ruler – all of which event coordinators will have on hand at the park for students.

“With these items and a funky little equation, students can calculate the diameter of the Sun,” Cheney said.

In addition to flying high, fast and in circles, Physics Day participants will complete in amusement park ride and logo design contents, as well as an academic physics bowl, and visit interactive booths hosted by event sponsors.

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

Physics Day receives funding support from Lagoon and a host of public and private sponsors.

Initiated in 1990, USU Physics Day at Lagoon is one of the Intermountain West's largest and longest-running STEM events. Teens from throughout Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada and Arizona will travel to the Farmington, Utah amusement park for a day of STEM learning, competition and fun. (Photo: USU/M. Muffoletto)

WRITER

Mary-Ann Muffoletto
Public Relations Specialist
College of Science
435-797-3517
maryann.muffoletto@usu.edu

CONTACT

J.R. Dennison
Professor
Department of Physics
435-797-2936
jr.dennison@usu.edu


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