Cool STEM – roller coasters!

roller coastersWhen they were kids, my husband, Mr. SciGuy and his sister had season passes to Cedar Point. They practically grew up there, and they have countless stories about riding the roller coasters, playing in the arcades, and generally making mischief throughout the park.

Every year, SciGuy asks me if I want to go to Cedar point with him, but until last year, it never worked out. We had other vacations planned, or visited other amusement parks, or I was pregnant and couldn’t ride roller coasters.

Finally last October, we took our first family trip to Cedar Point. We had so much more fun than I expected, even bringing along two little kids. I thought it might be boring bringing to bring them to an amusement park, but I had more fun than I imagined watching them on the little kiddie rides.

kids on the kid rides: way funner than you expect

kids on the kid rides: way funner than you expect

This year, my sister-in-law and I signed up to run a half marathon at Cedar Point, so we had another opportunity to spend the weekend there. Being such a roller coaster enthusiast, SciGuy told me I just had to talk to you gals and guys about roller coaster engineering. I bet you could already guess that there aren’t a ton of roller coaster jobs out there – but there are some. It seems like the companies making the MOST popular big roller coasters are Intamin and Bolliger & Mabillard. There are numerous smaller companies out there as well.

Are you interested in roller coaster engineering? If so, most of all, you need to be really dedicated and passionate about it – there aren’t a lot of jobs out there, so there is stiff competition. Do what you can to learn everything about roller coasters, and get involved in professional organizations or clubs, such as the American Coaster Enthusiasts to learn more about the field, and meet industry professionals. There are a couple of universities which offer specific courses on roller coaster design, including Purdue, Ohio State, and North Carolina State University.

Want to hear about our trip, and some of the roller coasters we rode?

SciGuy and his sis, giddy after a morning of roller coasters

SciGuy and his sis, giddy after a morning of roller coasters

Our tickets included early access to the park an hour before it opened, so we had the opportunity to check out all the big roller coasters before it was open to the general public. It was so fun! We rode the Millennium Force first. It has been around for years now, but it is still consistently rated as one of the best roller coasters in the world.

Next, we rode Rougarou, which is the old Mantis rollercoaster, with a different floorless configuration. Then, we rode the Iron Dragon, an older steel roller coaster built in 1987 which is pretty tame in comparison to today’s roller coasters.

Then we walked back to try out the Maverick, which none of us had been on before. The Maverick was intense! It uses linear accelerator motors to propel the car up the first hill, then you go down the hill at a 95° angle. That’s crazy! The original design of the roller coaster had to be modified after it was built, because one of the turns was so intense that it put too much strain on the roller coaster car.

When he finished on the maverick we went to the Gemini, an old wooden coaster with steel tracks. After riding on the steel roller coasters, the Gemini felt almost as rough as being in the dinghy in a hurricane. But it was nice to get a historic ride in while we were at the park.

Riding the Gemini kind of turned me off from roller coasters for the rest of the day but the SciGuy and his sister still wanted more. They hopped in line for the Top Thrill Dragster as the last ride we had time for in the morning. If you haven’t heard about this roller coaster, you should look it up.

It’s classified as a strata roller coaster which means it goes more than 400 feet up in the air and then 400 feet straight back down. It uses a hydraulic system to push the car up to speeds of 120 miles an hour to accelerate over the hill. At the time it was built it was the tallest and fastest roller coaster in the world. The whole ride only takes 17 seconds but it is a really fun. Below, I put in a video of SciGuy and his sister riding it. If you haven’t seen it before, you can kind of get an idea of just what kind of roller coaster of talking about.

The hydraulic system on the Dragster can be very sensitive to environmental conditions, such as wind, rain, and humidity. Sometimes, this results in a train being accelerated up the track, but not making it over the crest. In this case, retractable braking fins catch and stop the car as it heads back to the starting gate. If you’re one of the lucky people that happens to, you get a bonus ride to get you over the hill. When the ride first opened, I remember seeing this happen several times, perhaps as the ride operators were really getting to know the nuances of the system. It doesn’t seem to happen as much now, but I don’t know if it’s because the kinks are worked out of the system now, or because they close the ride in bad weather conditions.

SciGuy did some more research, and found that there have been THREE times in the history of the ride where the car has gotten stuck right on the exact crest of the track. Can you even imagine that? Enough energy to get you to the top of the hill, but not enough energy to push you all the way over. When this has happened, they’ve had a mechanic climb to the top of the ride (>400 feet!!), who manually pushes the car over the hill. I wonder which way it gets pushed – if it’s back toward start, or toward the ending?   Can you imagine being on the ride for that experience? It’s like the ride of a lifetime!

Have you taken physics 1 yet? Where you study kinematics? This is like a dream introductory physics problem. If the train car must go a distance of 420 ft (128 m), and the only force acting on the train is gravity (9.8 m/s2), what starting speed do we need (assuming speed at height of 420 feet is zero). Using the formula v2 = vo2 + 2ax we calculate a speed at the bottom of the hill of 50 m/s, or 112 mph.

This is pretty close to the reported speed of 120 mph (53.6 m/s). We can then figure out how fast the train needs to accelerate from the starting gate to go from a starting velocity of 0 to the a velocity of 53.6 m/s, over a time of 3.8 s (thank you Wikipedia!). If we assume a constant acceleration (hydraulic launch systems are pretty constant), then we get an acceleration of 14.1 m/s2. Dividing by 9.8 m/s2, we can see that the average acceleration is ~1.44 G’s.

For those of you who’ve taken more physics courses, we can start adding in all the other variables that we ignore in the simplified kinematic model to make our modeled calculations fit better with the actual data. We can look at losses due to friction, weight distribution within the car, losses going around a 90° angle from horizontal to vertical and in rotating around the vertical axis, and losses due to wind speed and humidity, and other factors. How fun! I wish I had more information about the system so we could do more math!

What’s your favorite roller coaster? Have you ever done the physics to see what you’re experiencing?


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