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Honors Student Takes on Skateboarding's Biggest Challenge

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For the past four years, skateboarding has been a passion for Emily Stefano,
a mechanical engineering junior at Clarkson. Now, it's also the basis for her Honors thesis.

With her project, “The Physics and Engineering of Skateboarding’s MegaRamp,” Emily Stefano hopes to advance skateboarding by redesigning one of its biggest and most challenging competitive structures: the MegaRamp.

The MegaRamp is the world’s largest skateboarding structure, used by skateboarders and BMX bikers in competitions such as the X Games. It consists of a 50- or 70-foot long “roll-in” leading to a 50- or 70-foot gap, followed by a 30-foot-tall quarter-pipe. Athletes ride down the steep roll-in platform to gain speed in order to perform tricks over the gap and on the quarter-pipe to complete a “run.”

“My dad sent me a video of the MegaRamp one day when I was at school and asked if anyone had ever looked into the physics of it,” explains Emily. “Unlike most other structures of this scale the MegaRamp didn’t start out grounded in scientific knowledge or from a set of fully engineered plans.  Instead it was designed by professional skateboarder Danny Way based on his experience and knowledge”.

In its current design, performing on the MegaRamp can be risky due to the speeds the athletes must reach and forces they must endure in order to perform well.  In the last few years, concerns have been raised about the ramp’s safety based on the number of injuries associated with it.

Emily decided to study the physics of the ramp and to develop calculations that would result in a better engineered — and safer — design. She contacted the builder of the ramp, John Tyson of California Ramp Works, who immediately saw the potential benefit in her research. Tyson then helped Emily get in touch with MegaRamp so she could make her proposal. After working out the legalities of the situation, the MegaRamp team gave Emily the raw data she needed, including the dimensions of the ramp, which called for the signing of a nondisclosure agreement.

Emily needed a way to see and record real skateboarders’ movements on the MegaRamp to accurately make her measurements in the laboratory. She was invited by MegaRamp to videotape pro skateboarders while they practiced for the X Games in California. Over a two-week period, Emily was able to get all the footage she needed.

Now back on campus, Emily is putting it all together. “I’m trying to put an equation to the ramp to figure out how it could be built differently to make it easier for the athletes to use,” says Emily. First, she will build a scale model of the MegaRamp and experiment with weights in different locations to learn the effects of center of gravity on the ability of a skateboarder to land tricks on the ramp. This will help to isolate the effects of friction and air resistance in the equations.

Next, Emily will use the video footage to find the effects of other body movements of the skateboarders that cannot be mimicked with a scale model, leading to an equation that accurately models the path of a skateboarder on a ramp. Using the equation will help Emily learn the effects of changing certain dimensions of the ramp and allow her to find the best ones.

Finding these dimensions will also allow Emily to scale the ramp, which may just give pro skateboarders like MegaRamp inventor Danny Waywhat they really want: bigger ramps and a bigger challenge.

But for now, it’s one step at a time for Emily, who is eager to resume her research in the lab. “I’m excited to see what I can accomplish now that I have all the pieces to the puzzle,” says Emily. “I'd love to continue with similar work in the future so my job can be just as much fun!”
Emily Stefano