Johns Hopkins students ride the Six Flags roller coaster for class


Biomedical engineering and physics students collect data on amusement park rides

Johns Hopkins University biomedical engineering and physics students learn about physiological responses by tracking heart rates and other metrics while riding roller coasters like the Joker's Jinx at Six Flags in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, Oct. 28 .  (Michael Connor for The Washington Post)
Johns Hopkins University biomedical engineering and physics students learn about physiological responses by tracking heart rates and other metrics while riding roller coasters like the Joker’s Jinx at Six Flags in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, Oct. 28 . (Michael Connor for The Washington Post)

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A countdown began: “Five. Four. Three. Of them. One.” Luiza Brunelli Bührer waited in the car before a roller coaster and looked at her watch to see how fast her heart was beating: 86 beats per minute. Beside her, another freshman put her hands on his eyes. Johns Hopkins University classmates grabbed hands, bracing themselves.

A sudden explosion, and the roller coaster hurtled through a tunnel – from 0 to 60 miles per hour in just over three seconds. Then a 360 degree loop.

The little yellow cars raced up the hills and tumbled, veered madly around the bends on the bright green track, raced backwards and accelerated, finally, towards the start.

“Oh my God,” Brunelli Bührer said as his car pulled up. “I think I enjoyed it.”

His classmates staggered, laughing or moaning.

Emma Meihofer patted the device strapped around her waist. “We should save the data,” she said.

Each fall, faculty bring over 100 Johns Hopkins freshmen to Six Flags America to learn about biomedical engineering and physics in a literally mind-blowing way.

It’s a long-standing experiment, which started over 20 years ago but came to a halt – along with most other things – during the pandemic. This fall, teachers were thrilled to unleash students on rollercoasters and freefalls again for lessons they say will be far more memorable than most of their classes.

It’s a bright sign that things are getting back to normal – even if their version of normal is an amusement park full of people gossiping excitedly about vectors, baroreceptors and z-axes.

Most of the students are biomedical engineering majors, who worked on health equity projects, interactive electronics, and other challenges in their biomedical engineering design class this fall. Now they’re on a roller coaster ride to help understand the cardiovascular system.

“You learn more when you do things,” said Eileen Haase, professor of biomedical engineering at Hopkins.

Johns Hopkins University biomedical engineering students rode a roller coaster at Six Flags America to measure heart rate and acceleration. (Video: Aubrey Morse for Johns Hopkins University)

Triggered their seats, they learn physiological responses, such as blood pressure control, by recording heart rate during changes in driving acceleration. “We have reflexes in our body that help keep things pretty much in a steady state,” Haase said. “And one of them is blood pressure.” There’s a reflex that kicks in when someone has their head down, to do yoga or while gardening, for example, to keep the person from fainting, and that gets stimulated during rides, Haase said.

Using a small device, students measure heart rate and acceleration to see how their body reacts to the rapid changes as the ride whips through them.

An amusement park is essentially a full-scale physics lab, said Reid Mumford, educational resource consultant at Hopkins. But here, the students are part of the experience.

In his lab on the Hopkins campus, they fell three feet with their phones. At Six Flags, it’s the students who fall.

He brought around 30 of his students to collect data from their phones and tackle common challenges: faulty equipment, lost data, scrambled results.

Most introductory lab experiments are designed to work well, Mumford said. “That’s not how the real world is.” So giving them something imperfect, with “all kinds of weird variations, is fun. It helps them to think a little more.

Teachers were tackling their own IRL issues. Physics as a field tends to be a leaky pipeline for women and minorities, Mumford said. The journey is meant to be a disarming experience that helps build community.

The students are brilliant, Haase said. But some have to learn to work in a team.

Students from all over the world arrive at the Baltimore campus without knowing anyone. “This group of students – this age group – have been through so much,” Haase said.

After more than a year of virtual school at his home in Brazil, Brunelli Bührer said: “It feels really good to be back, to live with my friends and to have experiences outside of the classroom.”

When school buses pulled into an empty Six Flags parking lot one recent afternoon, a Bon Jovi song blared from the park’s speakers. But it echoed eerily in the empty space, with shops closed and only a few creaking rides departing. Students with backpacks and Hopkins hoodies had the park to themselves for an hour, before it opened to the public.

“I’m a rollercoaster junkie,” said 18-year-old Indian Divyansh Lalwani. “I love and love roller coasters.” He’s been on what’s billed as the world’s fastest roller coaster and a floorless ride that suspends riders above the sea.

Others planned to just watch, from stable ground.

Meihofer, a 19-year-old from South Carolina, strapped on a device that monitored her heart rate and acceleration during the ride.

“Is it supposed to blink?” someone asked, looking at the colored lights above the white box. “Maybe you’re supposed to press it?” someone else asked.

They were measuring how their heart rate changes with acceleration, Meihofer explained, but fear and adrenaline could affect the data.

Brunelli Bührer rushed to hook the lead car. “I’m excited,” she said. “My heart rate will definitely increase.”

After the ride, as they walked away laughing, Arboleda pulled out a laptop to download Meihofer’s data. “It was scary,” said Kenzi Griffith, 18, from Hawaii. “The first five seconds we went really fast. And upside down.”

Meanwhile, Mumford unfurled a measuring tape on the Harley Quinn Spinsanity pendulum tower, with giant beams lit by blue and red lights glowing against the darkening sky. He used a handheld device to project a laser up the structure and recorded the distance. An app on his phone recorded changes in atmospheric pressure.

“We do problem sets in real life,” said Sami Muhammad, 17, a physics student from New Jersey.

With so few people in the park, a worker counted the students going around and divided them into two equal groups to distribute the weight.

“Engineering!” joked the students.

Arboleda and Griffith watched the spinning and climbing merry-go-round – which suspends people for a moment gazing at the ground before swinging again – and ducked under the ropes. “Nooooooo! their lab partners called after them.

Then they went to the Voodoo Drop, a 140ft tower with a free fall tower. The math was pretty easy on this one, Muhammad said. Behind him, a girl screamed as the carousel plummeted. “Now I’m sending the data file to myself,” he said, tapping on his phone.

The funnel-shaped cake stand opened. Other people had started drifting into the park. The students took pictures of the sky, streaked with pink clouds, on their phones. They trained in rides.

Lalwani skidded to the platform of a roller coaster, her hair standing on end. “Surprising!” he said

Knowing that his own nerves might interfere with the data, he had started the journey trying to meditate. It didn’t work for too long. “I just forgot – caught up in the moment,” he said with a laugh.

But when they got together to download and analyze the latest data and fix the latest issues, everyone celebrated. “Having all these like-minded people around a computer, sharing a moment of intrigue, sharing a moment of excitement — not just for the rides, but for the science behind it all,” Lalwani said. “That, to me, was very beautiful.”

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