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Studying rocket science at Magic Mountain

Posted: March 10, 2008 2:25 a.m.
Updated: May 11, 2008 5:03 a.m.

Kristen Williams, a junior at Pasadena High School, uses a sling shot to toss a wad of paper into a trash can as part of the Projectile Motion event at Magic Mountain's Physics Students' Day. Students were given three chances to sling the paper into the trash can, but many of the competitors were unable to do so.

For about 300 high school physics students, Sunday was a day in the ultimate outdoor classroom: They turned Magic Mountain into a science experiment as part of Six Flags' Physics Students' Day.

The students from all over Southern California made their best impersonation of Albert Einstein as they participated in four mind-challenging events, including "paper tower," "paper airplane accuracy," "constant acceleration" and "projectile motion." Each student brought competitive fire, trying to outmaneuver and out-think others during "Physics Olympics."

At the "paper tower" event, students teamed up in groups of two to four to erect the tallest tower made out of paper.

The team that made the tallest free-standing tower without tipping over won the top prize, which was a free pass to Magic Mountain at a later date. When the judge came by to measure one team's tower, students celebrated with the apparent tallest tower, only to find out moments later that the team next to them built a tower that was slightly taller.

One duo, however, did not even have the opportunity to have the judge measure their tower, since it was unable to stand still as a freestanding tower.

"We tried to make a bunch of paper tubes and stand it on a tripod base," said Vincent Tse, a junior physics student at Pasadena High School. He and his teammate built a paper tower just under five feet tall. The duo spent 37 minutes on the project; however, the piece did not qualify for an award since it did not stand erect when time was called.

"We experimented this in physics class, unfortunately it did not work when we executed," Tse, 17, added.

For students participating in the "constant acceleration" event, the challenge was to walk 20 meters while steadily increasing speed. Many students practiced for this event during the week as they tried to find the optimum speed to walk at. Students aimed at completing the 20-meter walk in 55 seconds, since that was the optimum time to represent a constant acceleration for the short course.

"Once you know the equation, it is easy to solve it," said Jeffrey Sapigo, an 18-year-old senior at Palm Springs High School who spent his Thursday session in physics class trying to figure out the optimum speed to walk. "I wanted to get within a half-second of what I figured out in class, but it did not turn out that way in my execution."

Sapigo added that he was also in marching band, where he had to memorize step counts as he performed in front of large audiences. He said the "constant acceleration" was no different, as he had to memorize foot counts in order to maintain a steady increase in foot speed over the 20-meter course.

Another challenging event was "paper airplane accuracy," in which students had to build a paper airplane, then toss it into the air from an elevated stage and have it glide at a gradual decline through a hula hoop several feet away from them. The student who was able to glide a plane through the hoop from the farthest distance earned top honors.

While these three events required a combination of focus, intelligence and execution, one of the more light-hearted events was the "projectile motion." Of all the events, this was the one where students were less competitive and more jovial.

Students merely had to crumple up a small piece of paper, place it in a pre-made sling shot that was placed on a table and toss the paper into a trash can target about five feet away. Students were given three chances to toss the balled paper into the trash can. While the most difficult task was to place the paper in the sling shot, many students struggled to hit the target.

In the midst of competing to be the top high school physicist, students were able to enjoy the engineering marvels of the many roller-coasters at Six Flags. Each seemed to walk away with a new appreciation for physics.

"I'm definitely a science person," Sapigo said. "Yet I am more of a chemistry guy. Physics is a challenge, and very difficult in my perspective."


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