Writing Center
Fall 2009 Edition

Lessons by Gravity

Shawn Domgaard
Expressive 2010 2nd Place
Professor: Bryce Christensen

Many are the scars of our youth. For some it is mental or emotional, but all tend to have some physical symbol of misfortune that befell them earlier in life. The forces of gravity and friction are difficult to overcome when learning to walk and run, but those forces are magnified when trying to overcome them with a skateboard. Most parents look at a skateboard as a fast-track ticket to the hospital, and with good reason, since thousands go to the hospital each year for skateboard related accidents. Yet they fail to see how this "toy" can create meaningful learning experiences, even if it is accompanied by a few scrapes and bruises. Who hasn't enjoyed the slippery thrills of conquering friction? Or sought the feeling of weightlessness, defeating that constant foe of gravity? With a basic knowledge of these forces, math, and physics, I have implemented the scientific method in having meaningful learning experiences outside of the classroom, and have proven that it can be worth the risk to learn.

My wonder and awe of the sport of skateboarding started at a young age. I was constantly searching for a show where I could see people use seven layers of plywood, some cast iron axles called "trucks," and four bearings set in four separate plastic cylinders, all hooked together and stood upon to exhibit some of the most amazing skills ever performed by man. Yet, before the days of YouTube and the internet itself (at least in my house) I was adequately deprived of what the sport had to offer. My only window of connectivity was a video game with some highlight reels and once in a blue moon a contest would be on television. I would watch them go on ramps made specifically for the vehicle, transporting them upward and down, sideways and in full circles. There were wrecks and they were plenty, but that never seemed to stop the invincible athletes. At first I was impressed by the surreality of it all, but as I grew older and came to learn more of physics and geometry, I became engrossed in the fact that these were real people doing real things. I marveled at the fact that they were using angles and momentum, not only natural skill as I thought before. While beginning to understand the patterns in the way they moved their bodies to keep speed and agility, I began to think upon the idea that I might be able to accomplish such feats if I were to imitate them.

Leaning on my years of watching and studying how to maneuver this piece of wood, I began experimenting. With my house being located in Gusher, Utah, a town of 200 people, having only a ten-by-twenty cement patio, and being surrounded by about 2000 acres of hayfields, I didn't have a very sufficient "lab," but it was all that was available. I would spend hours skating in circles, in an endless attempt to satiate my desire to become better. The more I would try the things I saw the pros do the more I realized how hard it actually was to duplicate, especially without the ramps. So I expanded my field of study.

I moved up to Logan, Utah for a while after I had graduated from high school. There I found a skate park: a laboratory with all the controls and variables of a pro. Embarrassed by my lack of skill, I went there when I knew no one else would go, namely when it was raining. I started down a ramp and felt the exhilaration of the wind and rain hitting my face as I smoothly rolled across the concrete. A smile touched my lips as I began to round corners and go up and down the angular plane. I would veer right then left, shifting my weight in just the right way to stay balanced. I stopped and sighed in relief at my success. Feeling more confident, I went to a higher ramp and decided to go down it. Picking up speed I proceeded up then down the next slope, but my board started to go behind me as my weight shifted wrong. The lack of friction caused by the rain made the pull extra easy as my left leg swung forward and my right foot behind me with the board. My knee slightly popped as the pressure from gravity continued to pull me down toward the earth, considering my appendages had nowhere to gain traction to stop the movement. I learned firsthand Newton's law that an object in motion will stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force. I also learned that there were other precautions needed when skating over a frictionless surface. With a swollen joint and a somber face from an experiment gone awry, I vowed to not give up, only to change my research slightly.

Deciding that I didn't want to be the tricky, air flying skateboarder, I retired my old skateboard and bought a long board. A long board is somewhat bigger than a standard skateboard and can range anywhere from three and a half to five feet in length. The wheels are also bigger so as to give more surface area to handle larger obstacles and compensate for the faster speed. All in all the long board is made to go down hills. The object is to "carve" or turn left then right in a rounded zigzag motion in order to avoid the oscillation of the wheels at such high speeds, sometimes referred to as "speed wobble." I had also studied these movements for a time before trying it in my new classroom, this time in a town called Roosevelt. I had tried riding it on smaller hills and a little on flat ground in order to get the feel for this new medium of transportation and learning.

While working construction, I had often travelled on a road that was about a 15-20% grade for half a mile. This seemed ideal to try my new and improved skateboard on. I longed for the chance to try it, and every day we passed over it I would visualize in my mind how this run could turn out in success. My opportunity came one day in the form of a road closed sign. Construction on the road had been anticipated but work had not begun yet. This would give me freedom from oncoming traffic that might interrupt my procedure. Not wanting to miss my chance, I went first thing after work to try it out. I parked my car at the bottom of the hill and hiked to the top, scoping out where I would turn and where any variables might impede. As I reached the summit I looked down with a gulp as I realized how steep the angle of the hill looked from this perspective. Yet, I had already made up my mind and was set on accomplishing my task.

As I started down the hill I realized my rate of acceleration was increasing faster than I had previously calculated, making it more difficult to carve down the hill as planned. Forgetting about my compensation to stop oscillation, I performed an impromptu experiment to see how well I could go in one lane of traffic instead of taking up both; if I was going to consistently ride, I couldn't always plan for there to be a sign to save me from traffic; therefore I needed to practice for such circumstances. Going about 30 mph, my previously determined theory took effect. My axles began to bounce and throw my ankles and feet into a teetering battle over gravity to keep me on the board. Eventually I realized that I wasn't going to win that battle and that failure was imminent. I had a new choice to make: how to get off this mini rocket of doom without hurting myself! After quick deliberation, I decided that the course of running it out would be my safest bet. I jumped off and compensated for the speed by bending my knee and extending my foot far in front of me. I took my first stride and began to think I could get out of the mess I had created, but then my second stride was misplaced and I found friction playing a different role than my previous experience. As my foot hit the blurry pavement, the rocks and gravel imbedded into the asphalt used my body mass, times the acceleration of gravity, to equal an overcompensation of my balance, sending me head first down the hill. Not having any protective gear to conserve my body against the incoming road, I learned how effectively asphalt can chew through denim jeans, work boots, a cotton jacket, and not to mention human flesh. Saving my head from impact with my hands, I superman slid for approximately 20 feet. With the adrenaline pumping through my veins I jumped up quickly and grabbed my board which had flipped over from my deployment. I then hobbled back to my car and looked at the damage done. There were pieces of gravel imbedded into my palms and phalanges with a bluish, purple tint to the inside of my blood covered knuckles. My pants were torn in two places with blood coming from both as well as a giant gash across the inside of my abdomen where my jacket had torn exposing my skin to the slide. Not too bad—it could be worse. Was it such a bad price to pay? I had learned about nature! I learned that she was more powerful than I, and that try as I might, I will never be better than her. Respect was acquired, and I was not going to assume so foolishly the next time.

My long board still gets the miles put on it, but on a slower more controlled plane. I continue to learn new things from it every time I ride it. And though I may be safe and respectful toward gravity and friction, they still give me the memoirs of the time they won in the form of scar tissue. Those symbols will stay with me till the day I die, so how can a parent deprive their child of such respect and knowledge? Once we learn about gravity and friction, they come to be a constant benefit as we harness that energy under a contained, safe environment. It is worth the risk to learn.