Exploring the Science of Skateboarding

Through the entrance, past a myriad of experiments and underneath a skylight appearing to be a hole in the ceiling sits, a crowd of children and their parents packed together on small bleachers. They are here to watch the experienced skateboarders fly around the volunteer-built obstacles.

A section of floor is separated by barriers, like those police use to block streets when there is a parade. Inside that thirty-by-one hundred foot space a number of ramps are set up to allow the skaters to gain speed and provide the crowd with marvels of physics. To announce their maneuvers and the forces acting upon them are Paul Doherty and Steve Gennrich.

Inside the space two wooden quarter-pipes built by middle school students sit facing each other with various objects to skate in between. There are three small ramps, a skate box, a wet-floor sign to jump over, and barriers pushed together and anchored to one of the ramps.

“Skateboarders are like astronauts! Our job is to inspire students to learn science, and if we do it through their passionate interest in skateboarding, that is great!” said Doherty.””

Doherty is the Exploratorium’s Senior Scientist and an SF State adjunct professor. He wears his blond hair pulled back in a ponytail and glasses perched upon his nose. Steve Gennrich is a project manager and exhibit developer for the Exploratorium. Doherty describes Gennrich as an “avid skateboarder.”

“Skateboarders are like astronauts!” proclaims Doherty. He also relates some of their actions to that of cats. “Much like a cat, the skateboarder uses his upper body to direct the lower part.” Doherty explains to the audience how skateboarders are able to pull off tricks that look impossible.

Some of the Exploratorium’s staff feels a kinship with the skaters. “There are artists, builders, engineers, and scientists that work here. We go through the same process as skateboarders. We have to be creative and open-minded. We have to look at a bench and see it in a way that’s never been done before,” said Gennrich. “Skateboarders do the same thing, they think ‘how can I use this in a way that it hasn’t ever been used before.’”

Behind the bleachers and next to the snack bar, part of the exhibit includes a cluster of displays set up to educate visitors on the various aspects of skateboarding. One includes an experiment to test the impact of your jump. You stand on the platform and jump, once you land your impact is measured and displayed on an LED screen. Another shows how the hardness of the wheel is related to the friction with ground.

The Exploratorium held a similar exhibit twelve years ago. At that time they created a website explaining the science of skating and a demo area. On June 12, 1999 the Exploratorium hosted the first event of this kind called The Science of Skateboarding.

They streamed the demonstration live from their website. The ground-breaking event featured skaters Dustin Dollin, Matt Fields, Wade Speyer, Mikey Reyes and others.

“After the event and website I received many emails from parents thanking me for inspiring their children to do a science fair exploration of some aspect of the physics of their skateboards,” exclaims Doherty. “The parents indicated that their children were asking the science teachers at school to explain the science of skateboards. Luckily I work with teachers and when they ask me I provide them the answers for their students.”

This year on April 8th through the 10th various skate shops provided riders for the demonstrations. On Friday night the DLX team skated the obstacles, including many built by the FUELTV show, Built to Shred.

Built to Shred created a teeter-totter skate box and a pendulum manual pad. Their creations were for an episode of the first night with DLX riders from Real, Anti Hero, and Spitfire. The professional skaters included Dennis Busenitz, Peter Ramondetta, Elissa Steamer, Frank Gerwer, and more.

After the first night the Built to Shred obstacles were gone and ramps remained for the FTC and Mission skate shop riders to demonstrate their skills. The rest of the skate-able items were built by youth volunteers contacted through Mission Skateboards and the Exploratorium staff. “We build all our own stuff,” said Gennrich. The Exploratorium’s exhibit builders pre-cut the wood and had the dimensions already figured out. The adults held the pieces together while the volunteers operated the power drills and hammers.

“Our job is to inspire students to learn science, and if we do it through their passionate interest in skateboarding, that is great!” said Doherty.
This year they decided to bring the web page up-to-date and provide a history of the progression of style in the sport, including a break-down of the science behind the maneuvers. There are also some photographs and videos on the website.

“It was a huge amount of work by many people. Steve Gennrich ran the project and got little sleep for days coordinating everything, Built to Shred and Mission Skate came into the exploratorium and built the skate park for us,” says Doherty.

In the 2013 the Exploratorium will be relocating to piers 15 and 17. “Right now we are easier to get to from Marin than we are from San Francisco,” said Gennrich. “We will be moving to a place that is skateboard heavy. But, an environment where the architects have done everything they can to prevent skating in the area.”

The new location will be nine acres and offer space for exhibits inside and out. “Right now we are grappling with the idea of what the skateboarding exhibit is going to be. Is it a public program? Will it be permanent? We know it will be exhibits to help everyone learn more,” said Gennrich.

“The Exploratorium unleashed a bold revolution when it opened in 1969, leaving both classrooms and the museum field changed forever. It was the first place that visitors could play with science and art, to see, hear, smell and feel the world around them. It inspired similar institutions around the globe and became — as it has been acknowledged by its peers — the leader in the science center movement globally and the best science museum in the world,“ said Dr. Dennis Bartels, Executive Director of the Exploratorium in their press release about the groundbreaking for the move. It is also stated that two of the acres will be public open space.
The new building will feature a way to capture rain runoff for use in the septic system of the new location and solar panels on the roof will cover 100% of the expected power use.
Next time you see a skateboarder fly down a hill or bust a tre-flip, remember the physics behind it requires them to posses the skills of cats and astronauts as well as an open mind. Instead of being angry that they are board sliding a ledge by your house, enjoy their ability to look at boring architecture and create a combination of art and science that is all their own.