News Detective: Studying Skateboarders in Action

Emily (center) studies physics with skateboarders Willis Kimbel (left) and Cory Ribin (right).

Emily, SNK’s intrepid reporter, studies skateboarding.

I had a hard time pulling myself away from the halfpipe at this year’s DCYSC competition.

Of course, it was my job to watch all the challenges and interview all the finalists, and I did. At some point during each round, though, I found myself back at the pipe. Well, OK. Several times. It was mesmerizing.

The structure was tall, steep, and impressive. Over and over, the skaters launched themselves into the air, twisted their boards around, zoomed back and forth. With each turn, it seemed like their tricks should be physically impossible. Most of the time, though, they came down upright.

As the teams of students discussed the physics behind what the skaters were doing, I leaned over to skater Willis Kimbel, a 16-year-old from Mechanicsville, Md.

“Do you ever really think about physics when you’re skating?” I asked.

“Sometimes,” he said.

“Really?” I was surprised. “Like what?”

“The speed you need to do certain tricks and stuff,” said another skater, 13-year-old Cory Ribin, who’s from Rockville, Md. Both boys had been given permission to miss school for 2 days so that they could skate all day in the name of science.

At that point, I started paying more attention to the Gray Team as they worked on the challenge. Maybe I could learn something, too.

After a few rounds of observation, the team figured out that the skateboarders were “pushing” with their knees to get a little extra oomph up the slopes. The more they watched, the more the team members started to realize that forces were constantly shifting through each run. In fact, the skaters could do nothing without taking advantage of the laws of physics.

My amazement continued to mount with each drop-in, invert, and ollie. But learning about the science behind the pipe helped me understand how each trick was possible.

As scientists and students learn, I suppose, reporters do, too.—E. Sohn

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