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Monday, February 26, 2018

Relationship has its ups and downs

URI engineers find science, joy, beauty in roller coasters
He likes fish, she likes meat. He’s a physics guy, she’s into biology. He sleeps late, she doesn’t.

But Emily Orr and Greg Morgan have one thing in common: roller coasters. The University of Rhode Island students—and a couple since high school—are leaders in the Theme Park Engineering and Design Club, a student group heading into its second year on campus.

Most of the members are engineers, but you don’t have to be an engineer to join. One member is studying accounting. The only requirement is an interest in roller coasters that goes beyond the occasional joy ride on a summer day.

“We tackle everything from the physics of roller coasters to the design of the ride,” says Orr, club president and an industrial and systems engineering major. “We take a lot of field trips too. You can imagine. It’s fun.”

With thousands of theme parks throughout the United States and world, the demand for engineers to design, build and maintain rides is growing. Morgan and Orr hope to find jobs in the field after graduating—Orr next year, Morgan in two years.

“I’d be doing something related to engineering—and something I love,” says Morgan, an International Engineering Program student with a focus on mechanical engineering and German. 

“What could be better than that.”

Founded two years ago by another German IEP student, Zachary Davies, the club has about 20 members who meet once a week to talk shop and work on designs for ride competitions at colleges and theme parks nationwide.

So far, the students have submitted three designs—including one to Cornell University’s annual “Theme Park Engineering Design Competition”—and although they haven’t won anything the experience was invaluable. They designed a roller coaster ride for Cornell that used 3D LED screens to mimic a train crash in a haunted station.

“We wanted to make something spooky,” says Orr. “I think that helps with the thrill.”

Physics is the engine of a roller coaster—and this has fascinated Morgan since he was a kid riding Nitro at a Six Flags near his home in New Jersey. Using a pulley system, a roller coaster climbs to the top of a hill, and as it falls it speeds up and creates kinetic energy, which carries it through the remainder of the ride, he says.

“It’s the engineers’ job to analyze the forces—friction, wind, weight load—to make sure the roller coaster can get through the entire track without stopping,” says Morgan. “Usually, those forces can slow down a ride.”

Translation: The job of a roller coaster engineer is to make sure the carts can handle turns, loops and inversions without falling off the track. The engineer also keeps passengers safe by accurately measuring the force on them. “That’s known as g-force,” says Morgan

Raised in Roxbury, N.J., two hours from New York City, Orr and Morgan were friends in middle school and started dating as juniors at Roxbury High School, bonding over their mastery of math and science. 

Early on, they knew they wanted to be engineers. They both applied to URI, but didn’t tell each other, agreeing to keep the college process separate.

“We wanted to do what was best for both,” says Morgan. “If we ended up at different colleges, we’d keep it going long distance.”

But parting wasn’t necessary. They landed at URI and are now entering their third year together in college as a happy couple. Sophomore year they turned cartwheels when they saw a flier about the club, and signed up. Both were lifelong fans of theme parks and roller coasters, although Orr was a bit skittish as a kid about the big-drop rides. Morgan was not.

“I loved them—the thrill,” he says. “Pretty wild.”

When Davies went to Germany this semester to study, he asked the duo to take over. Club members expect to submit a design to the next Cornell competition in the spring and are reaching out to theme parks for private tours of their engineering facilities—and perhaps a peek at the roller coasters’ control room.

“These tours are a great way to see firsthand what we can expect to work with in the future,” says Orr, “and also learn what goes into making the rides.”

Morgan is so keen on roller coasters he hopes to get an internship in paradise: Intamin in Liechtenstein, one of the largest manufacturers of roller coasters in the world.

“I love the idea of creating things and figuring out how they work,” he says. “I’m just doing it with roller coasters.”

The academic adviser of the club is German-born Niko Tracksdorf, who joined URI last June as coordinator of the German International Engineering Program. He, too, is an enthusiast of the ride. 

He has been on more than 200 rollers coasters and hopes to bring his course, “Achterbahn—The Thrill of German Engineering,” to URI students soon.

“The next time you’re on a roller coaster remember that they’re not just thrilling rides,” he says, “but also engineering masterpieces.”

For more information about the club, email Orr at The club meets Tuesdays at 5 p.m. at the International Engineering Program House on Upper College Road.