Coller tells how to build a better halfpipe

Brianno Coller
Brianno Coller

While he hasn’t spent much time on a snowboard, Brianno Coller could appreciate better than most the complaints about the halfpipe at the Sochi Winter Olympics.

The NIU professor of mechanical engineering is featured in a video produced by NBC Learn, which explains the engineering that goes into creating a world-class halfpipe.

The video is one in a collection of 10 created by the National Broadcasting Company’s educational arm, which examine the science and engineering behind events at the winter games.

Despite living in one of the flattest areas of the U.S., Coller was recommended for the halfpipe video by the National Science Foundation because of his reputation for making difficult concepts accessible to students. In this case, the concepts most at play were acceleration and centripetal acceleration.

“Height is all speed. If you can get that speed, you can get the height,” Coller explains in the video.

And speed – or lack thereof – is what Olympic athletes were complaining about Monday.

The snow in the bottom of the pipe was bumpy, robbing them of speed – and consequently height – leading to far more crashes than usual. Earlier in the week, riders complained that the walls were too steep, but that problem was corrected. Coller addresses the importance of both those factors  in the video.

NBC Sochi 2014 logoThe saga of the grounded snowboarders could someday find its way into one of Coller’s lectures someday, as the professor is known for finding real-world examples to illustrate seemingly arcane ideas at work in the world.

Considered a leading innovator in finding ways to make such concepts interesting and understandable to engineering students, he has designed video games to teach basic engineering principles to his students and has data demonstrating that students grasp the material quicker and more deeply using his non-traditional methods.

“Physics and engineering have to do with everything. But when students learn engineering, it is a really hard process. We throw these theories and equations at them,” Coller says. “I find that the best way to help them learn is to make connections to things students enjoy. If you can do make those connections – through things like snowboarding – you make the concepts understandable and relatable.  This project fit with that approach.”

While Coller grew up skiing the mountains (and sand dunes) near Reno, Nevada, he had only been on a snowboard a couple of times. Nevertheless, he had spent some time contemplating the physics of the sport.

“It’s amazing to watch what these athletes are capable of, and when I do, I can’t help thinking about the physical principals at work,” Coller says. “I always have that mindset when I look at the world around me, and I try to teach my students to look at the world the same way.”

That approach is one that Dean Promod Vohra encourages throughout the NIU College of Engineering and Engineering Technology.

“To use snowboarding as an example of engineering innovation, and explain to the students how it works, opens up new doors of information to students,” Vohra says. “It helps students understand the importance of engineering, gets them interested in careers in engineering, and ultimately helps keep America on the leading edge, technologically and economically.”

Coller’s video is accompanied by both science and engineering-focused lesson plans developed by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) for middle- and high-school teachers. Most of the segments will not actually air during NBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympics, but occasionally abbreviated versions might be incorporated into the broadcasts.

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