Physics in Action

Students conquer a rollercoaster while studying physics at Kings Dominion.

Students conquer a rollercoaster while studying physics at Kings Dominion.

Legs dangling over the top of the open track, the riders cheered as the train made its way up the steep incline. The longest, floorless rollercoaster in the world at 4,210 feet, the Dominator at Kings Dominion is known for its 148-foot drops and g-forces of 3.8.

For the Randolph College first-years on board, the ride— with its steep hills, loops, and crazy corkscrews—was more than an opportunity for an extreme adrenaline rush. It was a chance to experience physics in action.

Peter Sheldon, a Randolph physics professor, talks with students in front of Kings Dominion's Dominator rollercoaster.

Peter Sheldon, a Randolph physics professor, talks with students in front of Kings Dominion’s Dominator rollercoaster.

The students, all participants in Randolph’s Step Up to Physical Science and Engineering at Randolph (SUPER), traveled with their professor (and rollercoaster expert) Peter Sheldon in August to Kings Dominion in Doswell, Virginia, where they explored the park in groups, collecting data and analyzing the dynamics of numerous rides and exhibits.

It was just one of many trips made by students participating in Randolph’s two-week college transition program, which is their first introduction to the four-year SUPER program.

“The amusement park trip is part of the experiential component of the program that includes field trips to local companies and lab experiences,” said Sheldon, who also heads SUPER. “Kings Dominion is a location that allows us to let loose, but also allows us to really study the concepts that we are learning firsthand. Amusement parks are excellent exhibitions of the physics of motion, of forces, rotational motion, of energy conservation, and more in action.”

Randolph’s SUPER program, which provides scholarships to a select number of students, is a four-year program that provides academic services, tutoring, special mentoring opportunities, and career guidance support for students interested in science, math, engineering, and technology. The program is designed to help the students excel in demanding undergraduate courses while preparing them for graduate studies as well as careers as scientists and engineers. As part of SUPER, the college transition program brings students to campus before classes officially start to help them get a leg up on coursework while easing their transition to college. Participants earn three credits for completing the intensive program.

SUPER students examine the results of an automobile crash test during a field trip to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Ruckersville, VA.

SUPER students examine the results of an automobile crash test during a field trip to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Ruckersville, VA.

Other trips during the two- week program included a visit to the Institute for Highway Safety’s Vehicle Research Center in Ruckersville, Virginia, where the SUPER students watched live crash tests and saw how scientists use these crash tests to collect data that will later be used to make safer vehicles. They also spent time with professional researchers at the Center for Advanced Engineering and Research in Forest, Virginia, learning about science careers.

Setting the Pace for College Life

Sheldon began the SUPER program in 2010 as a way to better acclimate incoming students interested in math and science with what he describes as a “science boot camp.”

“Basically we try to instill good habits by preparing them for how hard they will have to work and really setting the pace for College life,” Sheldon said.

Thanks to a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2013, Randolph was able to expand SUPER to its current model, which includes four years of mentoring, academic services, and career advice.

Besides giving students the tools and resources they need to succeed, one of the additional objectives for SUPER is to help students bond and familiarize themselves with the campus before the rest of the first-year class arrives.

A Community of Learners

SUPER students take part in 2 weeks of for-credit "science boot camp" before Randolph College opens for fall classes.

SUPER students take part in 2 weeks of for-credit “science boot camp” before Randolph College opens for fall classes.

“Students in the program love it because of the living-learning community and the camaraderie that forms while going through all this hard work together,” Sheldon said. “The SUPER students who are the most successful as upperclassmen are those who are still in those groups as they progress. They support each other, study and work together, and often become best friends.” The program has grown in popularity. The first year, just 10 students participated. This year, more than 50 applied.

“There are so many benefits to the program,” said Geoff Hicks ’17, who plans to major in engineering. “You learn about internship opportunities. You get a lot of extra help and support from the faculty, and it feels great being part of a community of like-minded individuals who can talk and joke about science and understand each other.”

Once students complete the college transition program, they progress to first-year seminars, mentorships, and enhanced study halls and tutoring sessions. Later in their SUPER experience, they create four-year career plans with the help of Randolph’s Career Development Center and are encouraged to complete internships and professional research projects.

During their four years at Randolph, SUPER students are provided with opportunities to shadow professionals in their related field. And beginning this year, first- year students are advised by older students in the program. Student mentors meet with their first-year protégés throughout the academic year for tutoring sessions, and sometimes just to talk about life and school in general.

“We get to know them and help them feel comfortable to come talk to us about their goals, classes, or any other questions they have about what it takes to be successful as a first-year student,” said Noelle Wojciechowski ’17, a student mentor and tutor.

For Danielle Stone ’17, serving as a mentor has been a chance to gain leadership experience while helping other students get the most out of their college career. For instance, with the help of the SUPER program, she was able to secure an internship at BWX Technologies, a Lynchburg- based business specializing in nuclear power. Stone believes her experiences and the professionals she has worked with have helped her determine a future career path.

SUPER students learn from experts at the Center for Advanced Engineering and Research (CAER) in Forest, Virginia.

SUPER students learn from experts at the Center for Advanced Engineering and Research (CAER) in Forest, Virginia.

“Without SUPER, I might not have heard about the internship opportunity at BWXT,” she said. “My experiences there really shaped what I want to do in the future.” Bob Bailey, executive director of the Center for Advanced Engineering and Research, has served as a mentor for three SUPER students. “I think the main value of a program like this is getting students out of the classroom and seeing the links between the content of the classroom and the real world,” Bailey said. “Our organization has an interest in growing and strengthening the scientific and engineering workforce for this region. I also have a personal interest in strengthening science education, so this is a great opportunity for us to help with that.”

Successful Outcomes

The SUPER experience has already translated into post- college success for its first alumni classes. Pujan Shrestha ’15 was recently hired as a software quality assurance analyst for Adecco staffing and is currently working as a contractor for Google.

“Being in SUPER and serving as a tutor helped me learn how to communicate effectively and with various people,” Shrestha said. “That affected my overall college experience, and it is helping now as well.”

Zach Hubbard '19 launches a rocket during one of his SUPER classes in August.

Zach Hubbard ’19 launches a rocket during one of his SUPER classes in August.

Hart Gillespie ’15, who is currently a first-year graduate student at Penn State University, is another SUPER success story. “My physics and math background from the rigorous SUPER and Randolph programs has prepared me for my studies in meteorology well because I see much of the same material and notation here as I did at Randolph, but in the context of meteorology,” Gillespie said. “For instance, in one of my classes, we spent the first two weeks learning Einstein notation, which I had learned in Topics in Theoretical Physics, but most of my classmates weren’t familiar with it.”

Sheldon often hears similar success stories from his previous students who have entered the job market or graduate school.

“This is a project that means everything to me,” he said. “I’ve put thousands of hours into this, and these students are the closest thing I have to children. I love them, I love interacting with them, and I love seeing them be successful. It’s really gratifying to see the program flourish and continue to be successful.”