Wednesday 19th June 2019

Floating Ball Pits in Skydiving Tunnels Teach Kids Physics at iFly

Floating Ball Pits in Skydiving Tunnels Teach Kids Physics at iFly

Floating Ball Pits in Skydiving Tunnels Teach Kids Physics at iFly
At iFly, an indoor skydiving tunnel that uses wind to mimic human flight, kids are learning the fundamentals of physics. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

At iFly indoor skydiving tunnels, students are learning some of the fundamentals of physics by tossing balls into flight chambers, where powerful air currents are strong enough to suspend objects mid-air. 

The STEM program at iFly has become one of the company’s fastest-growing areas of business (alongside party packages, events, and, as of a few months ago, virtual reality). Bus loads of children visit U.S.-based iFly facilities each weekday to learn the basics of terminal velocity, acceleration, and force.

A typical visit includes hands-on experiments, such as the ball demo that has students tossing balls of different shapes and weights into the tunnel to see how each is affected by force and terminal velocity. Classroom lessons and lab experiments combine to teach children the mechanics of human flight. iFly offers kids a chance to take a personal flight, too. 

At iFly, a facility powered by advanced engineering and physics concepts, the STEM program is seen as a way to get young people excited about the various ways science, technology, engineering, and math can be applied to real-world applications.

“We want to talk to them about engineering as a career and the principles behind engineering,” said Christina Soontornvat, manager of iFLY’s STEM Education program. Indoor skydiving is “the most exciting thing you can imagine, and it’s neat to show them that all of this is powered by computer science and math—stuff they’re learning in school.”

The program can be designed and customized to meet the needs of each class, depending on the age range and level of math and science they’re studying. Concepts grow more complex the older students are, with high school students using body measurements and calculations to figure out how fast the wind would have to blow in the tunnel to make them hover above a safety net.

One things that students are surprised to learn, said Soontornvat, is how the tunnel itself harnesses power and wind to operate. When students are shown a cross-section of the tunnel, they’re usually surprised to find that the fans generating the wind flow are located at the top. Students—and most people visiting the tunnel, for that matter—tend to think there are giant fans under the net blowing air upwards. In reality, the fans at iFly’s proprietary vertical tunnels are located all the way at the top where they re-circulate air through dedicated tunnels around the facility. The air is eventually compressed into an “inlet contractor” and pushed through the bottom of the net into the flight chamber.

The benefit of this system is that the airstream is much cleaner—not as choppy and unpredictable as if it were coming straight off the fan blades. That’s better for fliers, particularly advanced skydivers who use the tunnel to train and rely on its consistency. The system also saves iFly money by enabling it to run its wind tunnels as efficiently as possible.

“One of the most important factors in the way the tunnel is designed is airflow. We really want the flow to be smooth because it provides best experience. But also, if the flow is choppy, you’re losing a lot of energy every time. You’re slowing down the air, which has a lot of effect on the power and the cost it takes to run the tunnel,” said Soontornvat.

SportTechie Takeaway

STEM education is receiving a big boost from the sports world. The use of fun real-world concepts can help kids better understand complicated scientific theories and calculations. In return, companies and teams that host STEM programs enjoy increased awareness about their brands via community outreach (and potentially even gain new fans).

Professional teams and brands across action sports, traditional sports, and esports are increasingly focusing on sports-related STEM education programs.The NHL has launched an online platform called Future Goals – Hockey Scholar to introduce STEM concepts through a hockey lens. NASCAR is teaching kids about science, tech, engineering and math by applying the mechanics of race cars. And last year, the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers (through the 49ers Foundation) partnered with Beyond Sport, Chevron, and Verizon to create the Sports and STEM Alliance, a coalition of global organizations driving STEM through sports.

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