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Clarkson University Honors Student Redesigning Skateboarding’s Biggest Challenge

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For the past four years, skateboarding has been a passion for Emily A. Stefano of East Amherst, N.Y., a mechanical engineering junior at Clarkson University. Now, it’s also the basis for her honors thesis.stefano

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

"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 Stefano. "I knew that the ramp had just been designed by Danny Way, a pro skateboarder. But I didn’t realize that there were truly no calculations that had ever been done."

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."

In its current design, performing on the MegaRamp is risky due to the speeds the athletes must reach and forces they must endure in order to perform well. In the last few years, questions have arisen about the ramp’s safety based on the number of injuries and near-death accidents.

Stefano 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, who immediately saw the potential benefit in her research.

Tyson then helped Stefano get in touch with MegaRamp so she could make her proposal. After working out the legalities of the situation, the MegaRamp team gave Stefano the raw data she needed, including the dimensions of the ramp, which called for the signing of a nondisclosure agreement.

Stefano 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, Stefano was able to get all the footage she needed.

Now back on campus, Stefano 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 ride," says Stefano. First, she will use basic physics principles to find the equations that govern the motion of a skateboarder on the ramp. This will account for the effects of friction and air resistance that impact the athletes while riding the ramp.

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

Finding these dimensions will also allow Stefano to scale the ramp, giving pro skateboarders like MegaRamp inventor Danny Way what they really want: bigger ramps and a bigger challenge.

But for now, it’s one step at a time for Stefano, 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 Stefano. "I’d love to continue with similar work in the future so my job can be just as much fun!"

Clarkson’s Honors Program is an intensive four-year curriculum for exceptionally talented students. The University admits only 30 new students to the Honors Program each year.

Clarkson University launches leaders into the global economy. One in six alumni already leads as a CEO, VP or equivalent senior executive of a company. Located just outside the Adirondack Park in Potsdam, N.Y., Clarkson is a nationally recognized research university for undergraduates with select graduate programs in signature areas of academic excellence directed toward the world’s pressing issues. Through 50 rigorous programs of study in engineering, business, arts, sciences and health sciences, the entire learning-living community spans boundaries across disciplines, nations and cultures to build powers of observation, challenge the status quo, and connect discovery and engineering innovation with enterprise.

[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Annie Harrison, Director of Media Relations, at 315-268-6764 or]

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