Circus science: Lessons under the big top

  • Article by: ALLIE SHAH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 16, 2009 - 12:11 AM

An engineering professor at the University of St. Thomas is using circus tricks to teach her students about dynamics.

Talk about a dynamic way to study, well, dynamics.

This month, 10 students at the University of St. Thomas are learning about forces and movement by swinging from a trapeze, spinning inside a giant wheel, and forming a human pyramid -- all under a circus tent.

"This is a chance for students to get outside of their comfort zone," said AnnMarie Thomas, a renaissance thinker who teaches engineering at the University of St. Thomas and also dabbles in circus arts.

She came up with the idea for the two-credit "ENGR 488: Dynamics" course as a way to add whimsy to teaching engineering concepts.

This is the first year it has been offered.

"A typical class would have a lab where students are bouncing springs or swinging a pendulum," Thomas said.

Thursday's lesson on a flying trapeze was a whimsical take on the old swinging pendulum exercise. In this case, the students' bodies served as the pendulum, swinging through the air.

Most of the students are engineering majors, and none of them have previous circus experience, although one of the women enrolled has gone skydiving.

The course includes three days in the classroom on campus and two days of lab work, which are held at Circus Juventas, a youth circus school in St. Paul. There, coaches help Thomas and her students perform their experiments.

Dressed from head to toe in black, with strips of tape stuck to their knees, hips and shoulders, the students stretched on mats and prepared for a ride on the trapeze.

Their clothes and the strategically placed tape enabled a video camera to pinpoint each movement on the trapeze. When they return to campus, they will analyze the video and additional data collected from special sensors they wore while on the trapeze.

Thursday, they scampered one by one up the narrow, wire ladder to the platform.

Thomas stood at the top of the platform and reached down to extend a helping hand to a young man struggling to make it up. Once standing on the platform, the student reached out to grab the trapeze bar with one hand. Then he jumped, grasping the bar with his other hand.

Back and forth he swung, some 20 or so feet above the ground. He kicked gently, building up speed.

"How long do you want to swing?" asked Charley Mason, a Circus Juventas coach standing below, holding the safety line.

"I'm good," the young man answered. He then let go of the trapeze and fell softly like a spider onto the large net below.

A few feet away, also in the net, sat a classmate who used a laptop to record data collected from the first student's run.

Jim Portmann, 21, is a senior at the University of St. Thomas. He says he took the course because it sounded fun and different than the usual fare of college courses. His friends were puzzled when he first told them about the class.

"They're like, 'What? How does that work? Is that for a gym class?'" Portmann recalled. "I said, 'No, we're analyzing data.'"

Of all the circus acts he's performed, his favorite is the German Wheel, which is made up of two large rings with hand and feet holds. The performer climbs inside and turns cartwheels, rolling with the wheel.

Before the course ends, the students will also have conducted experiments using the bungee trapeze, the trampoline and the Spanish web -- a rope that hangs from the ceiling and has a small loop in it for the performer to slip a hand or foot inside and perform acrobatic tricks.

For their final project, the students will put on a circus, performing for about 60 middle-school students and explaining the science behind their feats.

As for Thomas's own experiment -- combining circus arts with teaching engineering -- she has declared it a success. She says she can see her students understanding the concepts while having loads of fun.

"I see a lot more smiles than I'm sometimes used to," she said.

Allie Shah • 651-298-1550

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