Last week about 120 Riverside Brookfield High School physics students got a chance to fly, or at least hover.

They went indoor skydiving, sort of, floating around in a wind tunnel as air blown in at speeds of around 100 mph held them aloft. In the process, they experienced firsthand some of the concepts they have been learning about.

“It was really cool,” said RBHS junior Julia Brom after her time in the wind tunnel. “It did feel like I was like falling to the ground, but I was always getting picked back up.”

Brom and about 55 other students in teacher Kristi Sterling’s physics classes went to iFly Naperville on Dec. 3 while teacher Sam Weiss took his physics students to iFly Rosemont.

The students, wearing helmets, ear plugs, goggles and flight suits, each spent 80 seconds in the wind tunnel accompanied by an iFLY instructor. As a student stepped into the wind tunnel they were immediately blown aloft. 

With the help of the instructor they did what is called belly flying — lying face-down down with their arms spread out. The wind blown into the tunnel kept them aloft as they floated around, sometimes moving up and down a few feet.

“Skydiving is all about balancing out gravity and resistance,” said Sterling, who found out about the skydiving educational opportunity this fall at a Northern Illinois Science Educators’ conference. “It’s a cool, real world application of what they’ve been learning about in class.”

It wasn’t just a cool experience, it was a learning experience. During the approximately three-hour visit, students learned about terminal velocity, which is the velocity necessary to keep an object stable in air, not moving up or down. 

The students learned that mass, their weight, their size, their shape and the position of their arms and legs would affect the wind speed necessary to keep them stable. Before entering the wind tunnel students estimated the wind speed that they thought would be necessary to keep them aloft; then after flying they compared the actual results to their estimates. They worked on a four-page worksheet about terminal velocity before and after their flight.

The experience made vivid the concepts the students have been studying in their unit on kinematics, a branch of mechanics concerned with motion.

Junior Kevin McKenna said that that his time floating around the wind tunnel made the physics seem very real and easier to understand.

“It’s all about velocity and resistance and forces acting on each other, and that’s exactly what we’re doing in class,” McKenna said.

Classmate Moira Ford said that floating around the wind tunnel definitely helped her understand the concepts she has been studying in class.

“With the labs we’ve done, nothing comes close with actually explaining how this works and what this does,” Ford said.

Students also saw what happened when balls of different sizes and weights were thrown in the wind tunnel as they saw the effects of mass and shape. They also saw water separate into particles when tossed into the wind tunnel.

Students paid $34.95 each for their flights. A grant from the RBHS PTO covered the cost for 20 students who couldn’t afford the fee. RBHS provided the transportation.

Students said that it was an amazing experience to fly, or float, in the air.

“I didn’t realize how fast the wind would actually be,” said Payton Fitzgerald. “You feel really weightless. … Before I didn’t really understand how air resistance really played into it, but now I understand.”