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Engineering Thrills

Engineering students go behind the scenes at Cedar Point for a sneak peek at the science of fun

For engineers interested in things like speed-to-weight ratios, g-forces and aerodynamics, studying a modern roller coaster is akin to marine biologists studying a great white shark. Like sharks, these looping leviathans of twisted steel get more interesting the scarier they become.

A group of Ohio Northern University engineering students recently went on a safari of sorts to the Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio, to get an up-close look at some of the world’s most impressive roller coasters. A private tour gave the students a chance to learn about the science behind the rides that allows them to break records and stop hearts.

Nathan Brune is a senior civil engineering major from Decatur, Ind. He organized the trip the past two years for the ONU chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

“ASCE has done this trip for the past several years as both a social event and educational experience. We get discounted admission into the park, and we get to ride all the rides we learn about,” he says. “It’s a great way to see engineering in action in a really fun way.”

Over the past 20 years, the amusement park industry has been engaged in an arms race of sorts with parks building bigger and faster coasters every few years. While Cedar Point’s proximity to ONU makes it a desirable destination, so, too, does its reputation for building record-breaking coasters. In 1989, the park installed the Magnum XL-200, which at the time was the tallest, steepest and fastest roller coaster in the world. Cedar Point built the first coaster to top 300 feet in 2001, the Millennium Force, and to this day is the only amusement park with four rides surpassing 200 feet.

But for a civil engineering student like Brune, the most interesting part of the trip wasn’t the heights the coasters reached above ground, but the depths to which the construction sunk below.

“On our tour, we learned about the types of soils present on the peninsula that the park sits on, and how those variations determined the depths of the rides’ concrete foundations,” he says.

The ONU students were admitted into the park a full hour before the general public for a behind-the-scenes tour of the grounds and its in-house engineering department. The tour included topics relevant to the engineering disciplines offered at ONU, including mechanical, electrical, computer and civil. The students had a chance to examine the foundations and structural aspects of some of the rides and also discussed the types of motors used and the programming required to make them operate.

“It was really a great experience for any kind of engineer,” says Brune.

The Cedar Point trip is just one of the many high-impact learning experiences offered by the College of Engineering this semester. In October, students traveled to Piqua, Ohio, for a tour of the municipality’s wastewater treatment center. A new alumni speaker series has introduced students to the realities of various engineering professions, including railway safety and construction management. Two students, Alex Altman, a senior civil engineering major from Napoleon, Ohio, and Eric Holodnak, a senior mechanical engineering major from Jefferson, Ohio, traveled to Washington to receive a Tau Beta Pi chapter project award at its annual conference. And finally, the College of Engineering hosted a graduate school fair that included recruiters from Case Western Reserve University, Miami University, Michigan State University, the University of Notre Dame, Ohio State University, the University of Dayton and the University of Toledo.