More than 100,000 teens have participated in the annual event that has grown into the Intermountain West’s largest and longest-running STEM outreach event.

Mighty oaks from little acorns grow” is an apt description of Utah State University Physics Day at Lagoon, which marked its 25th anniversary Friday, May 16, 2014.

“I don’t know where the time has gone,” says J.R. Dennison, professor in USU’s Department of Physics, who was among the founders of the yearly gathering and has nurtured the program, step by step, for a quarter of a century.

In what’s become a rite of spring, more than 6,000 teens and teachers from Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Nevada transformed Davis County’s überplayground into a giant laboratory to explore such basic physics concepts as gravity, projectile motion, centrifugal force and energy. 

“What better laboratory to entice young people than an amusement park?” Dennison says.

And that was exactly the question he and USU colleagues Gil Moore, who received an honorary doctorate from Utah State in 2014, and USU alum Teresa Burns, PhD’94 posed in 1990, when the trio led a summer workshop for middle and high school teachers.

“We were brainstorming ways to spark students’ interest in science and demonstrate abstract concepts in a fun and familiar way,” Dennison says. “Amusement park physics was just the ticket and we had the perfect venue in mind.”

At this year’s event, Dennison convened a roundtable of educators, including representatives from the Utah Governor’s Office and the Utah State Office of Education, to discuss science outreach and ways to make Physics Day even more effective.

“But we didn’t spend the entire day sitting around talking — we had some science fun, too,” he says.

Dennison invited roundtable participants to join with teens in competing in the day’s popular Sky Drop contest, which involved dropping a raw egg in a protective container of the competitor’s own design from the park’s Sky Ride. (In the process, hundreds of eggs plunged to their doom.)

Students also displayed ideas for thrilling rides of the future, vied in a robotics grudge match and measured G-forces as they zoomed through roller coaster loops. Middle and high school teams competed in an engineering challenge to design and build energy-generating windmills with a chance to advance to the national MESA USA Wind Energy Challenge.

Along with the day’s amusements, nearly 100 aspiring Aggies in three-person teams engaged in the Physics Bowl competition for more than $120,000 in scholarship awards. Six students in the top two teams received full, four-year scholarships to USU, along with two semesters of free textbooks.

An army of USU students, faculty and staff volunteers, along with corporate and community sponsors, worked throughout the year to produce the day’s magic.

“It’s a labor of love,” says USU student Milo Maughan, Physics Day alum, who has coordinated the event for the past three years. “It’s hands-on, it’s exciting and it’s a lot of fun interacting with all the students, teachers and volunteers.”

Physics Day alumni include dozens of USU’s top students — including  several Goldwater Scholars — as well as Winter Olympic champions Julia Mancuso and Ted Ligety, who participated in the 2000 event as classmates at Park City, Utah’s, Winter Sports School.

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