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USU celebrates 35th year of Physics Day at Lagoon Amusement Park

By Rob Nielsen - | May 12, 2024
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Students look over a creation for the ride-design contest during Utah State University's Physics Day at Lagoon Amusement Park on Friday, May 10, 2024.
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Students participate in the egg drop during Utah State University's Physics Day at Lagoon Amusement Park on Friday, May 10, 2024.
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Students line up for the egg drop at Utah State University's Physics Day at Lagoon Amusement Park on Friday, May 10, 2024.
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Middle school and high school students from across the region sign up for various contests and activities at Utah State University's Physics Day at Lagoon Amusement Park on Friday, May 10, 2024.

FARMINGTON — You can learn physics from a textbook any day — but one day out of the year, thousands of  middle school and high school students from across the West have an opportunity to learn it in the confines of an amusement park.

For 35 years, Utah State University has been holding Physics Day at Lagoon Amusement Park in Farmington. While this year’s event saw Friday morning’s winds impact when activities were held, nearly 8,000 students from Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming and Arizona.

Organizer and USU physics professor J. R. Dennison told the Standard-Examiner the idea for Physics Day came from, of all places, a teaching workshop.

“One of the people in our department, Gil Moore, talked me into running a workshop for high school science teachers,” Dennison said. “We were having kind of a wrap-up session and Gil asked the teachers, ‘OK, great, what can Utah State do for you guys? What would you guys like us to do?’ And somebody had been to one of these amusement park physics events in California and mentioned, ‘That would be fun,’ and all the other teachers thought that would be good. So Gil said, ‘Great, we’ll do it.'”

Then it was up to Dennison to figure out how.

“After all teachers had left and we wrapped up the workshop, Gil turned to me and said, ‘Great, J.R. How are you going to do this?'” Dennison said. “He and I went down to Lagoon and knocked on the door of the longtime head of guest services there, Dick Andrew, and somehow or another convinced Lagoon that this would be a fun thing to do.”

The first USU Physics Day event was held in the spring of 1989 and attracted around 500 students and teachers from across the region.

“Lagoon has been an amazing collaborator for all of these years,” Dennison said.

He said in the years before the COVID-19 pandemic, events peaked at around 10,000 attendees.

As with years past, this year’s event included an egg-drop activity in which students tested DIY accelerometers on roller coasters, a design-a-ride competition and a contest to help design next year’s Physics Day logo. Students also had opportunities to compete in a “Physics Bowl” competition. There also were chances to win scholarships.

Dennison said the event is even starting to see some return attendees.

“We have, I would guess, probably a dozen of the teachers — maybe even more than that — that are bringing students to this year’s Physics Day (who) went to Physics Day themselves,” he said.

He said around half of the students on-site usually join an activity while the others enjoy a well-earned day at Lagoon.

“A lot of them are there because teachers have used the activity as kind of a carrot over the year,” he said.

It’s a carrot that Dennison said has paid off in spades in some schools.

“There was a teacher at Box Elder High School who actually was one of the teachers at that original workshop,” he said. “He once told me, ‘Hey, if I can announce over the intercom that the physics students are going to Lagoon, I’ll double my enrollment. And I can’t teach them physics unless they sign up for my class.’ That was about 10 years ago, I think. Box Elder High hired their third full-time physics teacher at that high school.”

Nearly anyone can learn physics from a textbook, but Dennison said the day at Lagoon opens up a new avenue for kids to learn and see the material in motion.

“Physics is great stuff and people like me love it for all the math and problem solving and all of that good stuff. But to be quite honest — some of the problems you would encounter in a middle school or high school class about wooden blocks sliding down an inclined plane, they’re pretty boring,” he said. “But, it’s exactly the same physics to describe, not a wooden block, but a rollercoaster full of screaming middle schoolers. It brings the stuff that they do in the classroom to much more real applications.

“It’s not a hard sell to ask a room full of middle schoolers or high schoolers, ‘Hey, do you want to grab your cellphone with some apps to measure speed or acceleration, hop on a bus, go to Lagoon and do some physics?’ What can I say? You can guess the answer.”

He added that it’s a great way to spark some joy over the subject.

“If kids get excited about stuff, that’s how you make a difference,” he said.


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