Academics and Research

Students feel the effect of physics

Dylan DeTroye tries to explain what he likes about physics. Then he stops in mid sentence.

“Hang on, my head it is hurting. I was just on the roller coaster,” he says. “I went on it two times in the last two minutes.”

DeTroye, a 12-year-old from Falcon Bluffs Middle School in Littleton, joined thousands of high school and middle students from around the state May 8 for the annual Physics Night celebration of science and amusement park rides at Elitch Gardens.

Each year, DU physics majors team up with the theme park, teaching the younger students about the physics behind those big rides that make stomachs flutter and hearts race.

It’s no wonder DeTroye was woozy after challenging the old wooden coaster. DU students downloading data from the accelerometer strapped to his chest reveal the zig-zag patter of spikes and valleys: In the sharp curves, DeTroye feels three times the force of gravity, and in the mighty dips, he pulls six negative gravitational forces.

DU lecturer Steve Iona, who spent decades in high school education before coming to the University, says working with primary and secondary school teachers to instill an interest in physics is a passion.

“We really want to reach out, to help these students explore the world around them,” he says.

Park spokeswoman Megan Barber says Elitch Gardens is committed to the event.

“We love making the day fun and educational at the same time,” she says. “DU really helps us do that. It’s a good partnership.”

Inside the park, 17-year-old freshman physics major Naomi Pequette and 20-year-old sophomore Charee Peters dip roses in liquid nitrogen and smash frozen racquetballs for fascinated teens. Scott Rehorst, a lab manager borrowed from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, rips cans apart with a blast of electricity, and 19-year-old DU freshman Max Grossnickle, clad in a white lab coat, revs up the crowd with electricity crackling from a Van de Graaff generator.

Grossnickle says he wasn’t always interested in physics.

“In high school, in junior year, I had a fantastic teacher who just made it all so real,” he says. “If we can do that, show these students the way we feel about physics, we might get them interested in studying it in college. The rest of the world is adding students in all of the sciences. We’re decreasing. If we want to keep our lead, we need to have more people studying science.”

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