Freefall into Physics - Fall 2007 Ivy Leaf Magazine

Ivy Leaf - Fall 2007

Freefall into Physics

By Shari R. Routch


Mention "summer camp" and one immediately conjures up images of arts and crafts, swimming, outdoor sports, and … physics? For ten fifth through seventh graders enrolled in "The Physics of Amusement Parks" through Penn State Altoona's Summer Kids' College, camp was both fun and educational.

While it is likely that some of the students chose this camp more for the amusement park component than the physics, by the end of the one-week course all agreed that science can be a lot of fun. Taught by Patty Sohmer, who has been teaching chemistry and physics at Altoona Area High School for twenty-two years, the students spent Monday through Wednesday learning about concepts like momentum, impulse, kinetic and potential energy, speed, acceleration, and force through various hands-on experiments. Thursday was amusement park day; the students spent the day at DelGrosso's Amusement Park and ran actual tests on the rides, collecting data that they analyzed on Friday. States Sohmer, "We put it all together so that the kids can see a relationship between the concepts taught, the application at the park, and the data that they collected."

Sohmer became interested in teaching amusement park physics as a means of making science more exciting and applicable to children. She has been incorporating it into her high school classes for the past fifteen years and has taken groups to Hershey Park, Kennywood Amusement Park in Pittsburgh, and DelGrosso's. "But then I thought that this would really motivate younger kids as well," notes Sohmer. "I don't think kids get enough science in the younger grades, so I wanted to give them something to motivate and excite them for when they get to high school science." She brought the idea to Penn State Altoona's Continuing Education and Training Office, and it is now a Kids' College favorite.

"Doing hands-on experiments makes science seem more real to me."
—Matt Dimon, Kids' College student

This year's class was no exception. Eleven-year-old Matt Diman picked this camp "because I liked learning about amusement parks, so I thought this would be a bonus with the physics." Already interested in science, Dimon states that he "likes science a lot more now and can be ready for sixth grade." Kendall Routch, also eleven, states that "I like the camp a lot because I did a lot of cool experiments with my friends, and I made some new friends." The highlight for Quinn Redmond came on Friday when the students, working in teams, made their own roller coasters out of cardboard. States Redmond, "That was my favorite part because you got to be creative and use your hands to make what you thought a roller coaster should look like."

All of the students agreed that science can be a lot of fun when you learn about it in an interactive, hands-on environment. Amongst other activities, the students worked with a partner to build a bridge and then tested them in a friendly competition on Friday, wherein each team attached weights to their suspension bridge to see whose could hold the most weight without breaking. Dimon applied what he had learned about Newton's laws in building a lighter bridge that would hold more weight and, with his partner, won the competition. He states, "Doing hands-on experiments makes science seem more real to me."

Thursday's trip to the amusement park wasn't all about riding the rides—although of course that was a highlight. The group spent the morning collecting data on various rides using stop watches, accelerometers that they had made, and other tools to learn about force, velocity, and more. Notes Sohmer, "as we were walking around the park in the morning before it opened, we would stop at each ride and I'd ask the kids 'what concepts apply here?' They'd yell out 'impulse,' 'Newton's third law,' 'force,' 'acceleration,' 'inertia.' The people who were working in the park were absolutely amazed that these kids were able to explain how the rides work."

Sohmer was extremely encouraged by the enthusiasm of her students. "I was honestly dumbfounded when, on Monday, the kids asked if I'd come in early on Tuesday and stay late on Monday. They were so excited about being here; they wanted more time." Summing up the general sentiment of her fellow campers, Routch states, "I wish that camp would keep going. It's like school, only it's fun."