Boarding School: Scientist on Wheels

Daryl Chrzan (Ph.D.'89 Physics), Berkeley professor of materials science and engineering, is a longtime skateboarding devotee. He finds a way to combine his chosen sport with his passion for science in a freshman seminar he calls the "Physics and Materials Science of Skateboarding." PHOTO CREDIT: ABBY COHNDaryl Chrzan (Ph.D.'89 Physics), Berkeley professor of materials science and engineering, is a longtime skateboarding devotee. He finds a way to combine his chosen sport with his passion for science in a freshman seminar he calls the "Physics and Materials Science of Skateboarding.". (Photo by Abby Cohn.)Daryl Chrzan, a noted researcher in the field of computational materials science, is a diehard skateboarder. Besides carving the bowls at local skate parks, Chrzan loves to think about the science behind the sport.

The Berkeley professor of materials science and engineering considers such questions as the physics involved in stunts, the evolution of the skateboard wheel, the limits of a skateboard’s strength and even the g-forces experienced in spectacular spills.

For the past two years, Chrzan (Ph.D.’89 Physics) has posed—and tried to answer—those puzzles in a one-unit freshman seminar called Physics and Materials Science of Skateboarding. His hands-on class puts a new spin on a popular, if educationally unsung pastime.

“I skated almost nonstop between the ages of 13 and 18,” explains Chrzan, who grew up in Milwaukee but left his skateboard behind when he ventured off to college, graduate school and an academic career. Today, Chrzan’s scholarly work predicts the physical properties of metals and semiconductors based on their atomic composition. But he never lost his love of skateboarding and has returned to the sport now that his 15-year-old son shares his passion.

For Chrzan, teaching the class was a “natural outcome” of his twin interests in skateboarding and science. “Most of the questions we consider, I want to know the answer to.”

Open to just 15 students, the spring offering is part of Cal’s Freshman and Sophomore Seminars Program. The small-group seminars feature engaging—and frequently offbeat—topics taught by faculty members. They are intended to welcome Berkeley’s newest scholars to the campus intellectual community and ignite a passion for learning for learning’s sake.

“It’s meant to be fun,” says Chrzan. Students in his weekly class watched and discussed YouTube skateboarding videos, broke skateboards with a three-point bending apparatus and learned how friction affects skateboard bearings. One of the semester’s highlights was a demonstration of jumps and other gravity-defying tricks by local competitive skaters.

Students (from left) Sean Brennan and Celia Gong, in class with Chrzan, use popsicle sticks and a three-point bending apparatus to study the modulus of rupture, a measurement of the load required to break a skateboard. PHOTO CREDIT: ABBY COHNStudents (from left) Sean Brennan and Celia Gong, in class with Chrzan, use popsicle sticks and a three-point bending apparatus to study the modulus of rupture, a measurement of the load required to break a skateboard. (Photo by Abby Cohn.)“It’s kind of cool,” says Sean Brennan, a 19-year-old electrical engineering and computer sciences student from San Diego. Also a skateboarder, Brennan says, “I’m definitely gaining knowledge about physics in addition to skateboarding.” The class was by far Brennan’s smallest; his spring course load included lecture classes in physics, computer science, math and business. “I saw this and signed up for it right away.”

The class draws an assortment of skateboarders and non-skaters, engineering and liberal arts students.

“I started to longboard because of this class,” says Celia Gong, an 18-year-old cognitive science student from San Francisco. Gong decided to check out the seminar to learn more about materials science because her roommate was considering a double major in the subject. “I like the interaction—you don’t get that in the lecture hall,” she says.

Matt Mueller, a 19-year-old mechanical engineering student, has done a lot of skateboarding and commutes to class on his Enjoi board. But he never gave much thought to the science behind skateboarding until now. “I understand more how it works,” Mueller says.

For fellow mechanical engineering student Kliulai Chow-Yee, “The physics I am learning in this class is definitely sticking with me. It describes the physics of everyday life.”

To Chrzan, skateboarding and the field of materials science are inextricably bound. “I think it was materials science that saved skateboarding from being a fad,” he maintains. Advances in materials science led to the advent in the early 1970s of urethane wheels as a replacement for steel and clay wheels. In the past, riders were apt to go flying when their steel or clay wheels hit a pebble and stopped. Urethane wheels compress when they roll over small pebbles, store energy in that compression and keep moving, Chrzan explains. That innovation meant that riders experienced fewer tumbles and could “push the skateboard farther,” he says. Without urethane, skateboarding “would have faded into obscurity.”

Beyond the Berkeley campus, Chrzan hopes to use the curriculum from his skateboarding class to develop educational materials for high school students. Materials science isn’t well known or understood by many young people, he says. “I thought this would be a nice way to introduce them to it.”