University of St. Thomas engineering students earn credits under the big top

University of St. Thomas engineering students earn credits under the big top

This January, 10 students at the University of St. Thomas are swinging, twirling and flying their way toward earning course credits in an engineering class that uses circus acrobatics to teach dynamics, the study of forces and movement.

"ENGR 488: Dynamics," the title for the two-credit January Term course, is taught by Dr. AnnMarie Thomas, a St. Thomas engineering professor who practices the flying trapeze and other aerial arts in her spare time.

Dan Landberg in the German wheel

The students, mostly engineering majors, attend lectures on St. Thomas' St. Paul campus Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays during January. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, they head to Circus Juventas, a performing arts youth circus school in the Highland Park neighborhood of St. Paul, for the lab portion of class.

There they perform circus feats under the tutelage of three to four Circus Juventas coaches and receive further guidance from Thomas and her course assistant, Andrea Guggenbuehl, a senior health promotion science major. The feats include the flying trapeze, low casting (a smaller version of the flying trapeze), German wheel, Spanish web, bungee trapeze, trampoline and hoop.

What can flying 30 feet off the ground teach students? Thomas explains, "Most people know that if you jump off a platform and grab a trapeze, you'll swing. But why? And how fast?  Things get even more complex if you are looking at systems where there are various rotations and translations going on at once [as in circus feats]. In this class, students are learning how to use different mathematical tools to derive equations of motion."

To prepare for each lab session, the students write the equations of motion for the piece of equipment that they will be using. Various methods are used to compare the data collected during the feats with their equations, depending on the trick. For instance, with the German wheel lab, the students used tape to mark the joints on their bodies. They calibrated a video camera and videotaped themselves performing the tricks. On the flying trapeze, the students use sensors that are affixed to their bodies. Kinematic analysis software is then used to collect the data and calculate the speeds, velocities and positions and compare them with the student-calculated equations of motion.

Carly Olin on the Spanish web

A typical lab consists of 15 minutes of stretching and conditioning, followed by performance of that day's lab objective.  Thomas says, "Ideally, we have some time left over for the students to work with the coaches on more advanced tricks, and each student keeps a 'coaching notebook' in which they keep notes on what the coaches teach them."

The course was made possible by a grant from the Denny family. The funds covered the sensors, coaching fees and rental costs for space at Circus Juventas.

This semester, the class has two lab sessions remaining: Tuesday, Jan. 20, bungee trapeze and trampoline; and Thursday, Jan. 22, Spanish web.

On the last day of the class, they will be joined by nearly 100 middle schoolers who will be treated to a circus put on by the students, who will demonstrate the equipment and explain the fundamental physics behind their feats.

Watch a video and read more about Thomas' class on the Star Tribune Web site here.