By Jonathan Abelson, Roller Coaster Physics Instructor
Roller coasters typically have names such as “Viper,” “Goliath,” or “The Beast!” However, when campers from Six Points Sci-Tech West become the designers and creators of their own roller coaster, they become “The Spirit of Israel” or “The Eight Nights.” Campers that participate in the Roller Coaster Physics workshop are given a challenge: to design and build a model roller coaster with a Judaic or Israeli theme that might exist in an amusement park being designed in honor of Israel’s 70th birthday. Students choose a section of the amusement park, such as Chag of all Types or Eretz Yisrael to base their dream roller coaster, and from there they create the ultimate ride. They design and build both a model coaster made from a rubber track and a virtual coaster as part of an iPad app.
In the Roller Coaster Physics workshop a reasonable foundation in Newtonian physics, and a sense of how gravity impacts energy and movement (which we cover) is generally helpful to achieve the goal of a working coaster. However, the integration of Judaic principles and specific camp values as part of the curriculum, allows for campers to create a unique connection to Newton’s laws of motion and their own connections to Judaism. In fact, the challenge with integrating both physics and Judaism is not trying to find connections, but rather choosing which ones to focus on as part of the workshop. Drawing relationships between Jewish or Israeli culture and roller coaster science is not as “forced” as one might think.
Using metaphors of going up and down, twisting and turning, going fast and slowing down can show parallels in our Jewish life in various and elegant ways. For example, using a roller coaster to illustrate how we expend “kinetic energy” through the week or year, and move from one thing to the next by feeling a “momentum” that helps us push through our daily hills. We can look at how we approach Shabbat or Chaggim (holidays) to regain “potential energy,” elevating ourselves and resting so as to take on the hills and turns of the next part of our individual “rides.” Using roller coasters to frame Torah and the laws of motion provides unique challenges for campers to think about how we move through our personal and spiritual lives. Campers can consider what forces influence us individually, as well as our culture. Once more, our nature as scientists and as a religion to encourage questions and analysis helps to “accelerate” us, and keep us on track as individuals and as a community.
The parallels between Judaism and roller coaster is evident by the coaster designs of our first session campers. Students designed coasters that celebrated Hanukkah, The Eight Nights had nine areas, including the first hill as the Shamesh, and a “Dreidel Spin” section, that took riders along a thrilling ride. The Spirit of Israel simulates a trek through the land of Israel that includes starting up north in Haifa and spiraling down through Mt. Carmel; completing the urban loops of Tel Aviv; elevating up to Jerusalem; and continuing to the lowest point of The Dead Sea. All as if the riders were on an Israeli bus tour. The process of creating and building a track, with the trials and tribulations, requiring patience and perseverance of everyone, correlates what parents, counselors, instructors and camp administrators work towards daily: to support Jewish children to maintain and build up our increasingly complex roller coaster of Judaism. With this in mind, we can only hope that by the end of their summer, Sci-Tech campers will be able to reflect on their “ride” at 6 Points with a feeling of excitement, thrill, and an enthusiastic desire to get back in line to ride all over again.
Jonathan is a science teacher at Adat Ari-El Day School, where he covers material from chemistry to physics and everything in between. He is a roller coaster connoisseur and holds a season pass to Six Flags Magic Mountain.