It’s Not Just a Rollercoaster — It’s Homework, Too

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Johns Hopkins students “conducting research.” Photo by Will Kirk.

It’s a college class with no textbook, no exams, and a required field trip to Six Flags for “roller coaster research”:  yep, college sure has changed since we were freshmen.

The class is Freshman Modeling and Design, a first-year biomedical engineering class taught by professors Art Shoukas and Eileen Haase at Johns Hopkins. And the reason there aren’t any exams isn’t because this is one of those easy-A classes — quite the contrary, in fact. Instead, the course is designed to teach students how to do hands-on research by forming hypotheses, developing experiments, and working as a team to solve research problems.

And sometimes those research problems are found at Six Flags. The course’s field trip, a legend around campus, is used to test data about how the body responds to stress and excitement. Students wear devices that track their heart rates as well as measure the acceleration data while riding some of the park’s most thrilling rollercoasters (The Joker’s Jinx; Superman:  Ride of Steel; the Tower of Doom). Students come up with hypotheses, like when they think heart rates will peak; then they go back to the lab to sort it all out. Sounds like the best homework project we’ve ever heard of.

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  1. Back in my high-school teacher days, we had students in the Physics class design & build measuring instruments to gather data on the rides at Hershey Park in Pennsylvania. Accelerometers for the roller coaster, optical instruments, even water temperatures were fair game. The students had a blast, and learned a good deal about the nature of research. Messy stuff, science, when it’s not sanitized in the textbooks. But great fun – either despite or because of that.

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