Carnegie Mellon University
December 04, 2019

A Ride to Remember

Interdisciplinary team thrills judges in amusement park contest

By Katy Rank Lev

Julie Mattera
  • Marketing & Communications
  • 412-268-2902

In their first outing at the Ryerson Invitational Thrill Design Competition, Carnegie Mellon University students wowed judges at Universal Studios in Orlando with a creative approach to adapting an existing amusement park ride.

The interdisciplinary team, which included undergraduate and graduate students, won an overall team award for Engineering Design Challenges as well as awards for Accommodation Design, Safety and User Experience. Judges included executives from Universal and other industry companies.

Throughout the four-day competition in mid-November, 120 students from 16 invited universities were tasked with selecting multiple design challenges that best suited their talents, skills and interests. Using their imagination, computer software and rhetorical skills, they prepared solutions to problems over a long weekend rather than an entire semester that used CAD drawings, design sketches, complex mathematics and proof of plausibility. Basically, the competition was a microcosm of the work the CMU students have been doing for years.

The CMU team's award-winning work, however, is top secret, and is proprietary intellectual property of Universal Creative, which sponsors the competition with Ryerson University. "They couldn't even tell me what they did," said Shirley Saldamarco, a special faculty member from CMU's Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) and the team's mentor.

Conor Triplett, a master’s student at ETC, served as the elder statesman of the team that included fellow ETC graduate student Nidhi Ramanathan, mechanical engineering sophomore Carolyn Youstra, mechanical engineering senior James Biltz and fifth-year architecture student Monica Toren.

The competition organizers offered preparatory workshops and information on collaboration across fields of study. Saldamarco said engineers, architects and artists all speak different languages when it comes to expressing their ideas or verbalizing their processes. For the CMU team, opportunities to blur the boundaries between their disciplines are woven into the fabric of the IDeATe and ETC courses they take with Saldamarco.

"What makes CMU stand head and shoulders above other universities is that we embed this sense of collaboration and interdisciplinary teamwork into our pedagogy," Saldamarco said.

Graduate students at CMU’s ETC spend two years building virtual worlds, assisting actual clients with interactive experiences and completing cooperative work assignments at places like Disney World or, in Triplett's case, the Fred Rogers Center in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Undergraduate students have the opportunity to merge technology and creativity through the IDeATe, the Integrative Design, Arts and Technology network at CMU, which offers undergraduate minors and courses in Game Design, Animation & Special Effects, Sonic Arts and more.

Youstra, Biltz and Toren participate in CMU's Theme Park Engineering Group (TPEG), which created The Old Mill dark ride immersive experience in Skibo gym for Carnival 2019.

"Because we are used to collaborating across disciplines, we all knew terminology and what is possible from team members in other fields," Biltz said.

Knowing what Toren can do as an architect, for instance, helped the engineers on the team divide up the work and prepare a polished presentation under pressure.

One of the Ryerson challenges the team pursued surrounded accessibility in theme parks.

"The industry is really focused right now on how we can make experiences safe for guests of all abilities," he said. "Our challenge focused on how to retrofit an existing experience to help one subset of the community to better experience it."

Triplett couldn't say whether they focused on guests with visual impairments or mobility challenges or even neurological differences, but he did say his team experienced the park with new awareness of the user experience. They used their competition guest passes to research Universal Studios with a focus on accessibility.

The team also studied requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, travel and transportation regulations and the approach other theme parks have taken to address similar challenges.

Ramanathan first visited a theme park in eighth grade and said she was mesmerized by Universal in Singapore. She was determined to find a way to combine her passion for technology with her creativity. She said viewed the competition as a pre-screening for the types of jobs she and other students were pursuing.

"We learned so much about how extensive and thorough the entertainment industry is," Ramanathan said. "We also saw how we can fit in there, as creatives, as engineers and as experience designers."

That time will come sooner than later for part of the team. Triplett, Toren and Ramanathan walked away with internship offers — they will begin at Disney and Universal in January. As for the remaining members, they are deep into work on a new dark ride for Carnival 2020.

Support and funding for the team was provided by Keith Webster, dean of University Libraries and director of Emerging and Integrative Media.

two children ride a carousel at Disney's magic kingdom

Monica Toren, pictured in the polka-dot Minnie Mouse hat on left, will graduate from the School of Architecture in December. She will build upon her Ryerson experience with a hotel design internship with Disney World's Facility Asset Management Team in Florida.

CMU students at Universal Studios

CMU's team at the Ryerson Invitational Thrill Design Competition at Universal Studios. From left are Monica Toren, James Biltz, Nidhi Ramanathan, Conor Triplett and Carolyn Youstra. The interdisciplinary team won an overall team award for Engineering Design Challenges as well as awards for Accommodation Design, Safety and User Experience.

two young boys riding an amusement park ride

Conor Triplett, pictured at left in the orange wig, grew up visiting amusement parks and studying every detail of what made the experience fun. He will have an internship at Universal Studios beginning in January.

Nidhi Ramanathan visiting Universal in Singapore as a teen

From the moment Nidhi Ramanathan visited Universal in Singapore, she was hooked on amusement parks. She begins her internship with Universal's Advanced Technology Interactives department in January, and will graduate with a master's from the Entertainment Technology Center in May.

CMU students in the Harry Potter Diagon Alley exhibit at Universal Studios

Sophomore mechanical engineering student Carolyn Youstra said she chose CMU in part because of the IDeATe program. The intentional blending of technology and creativity appealed to her, and for Youstra, the Ryerson competition was an opportunity to grow her thinking about designing themed entertainment experiences for all users. (From left are Monica Toren, Conor Triplett, Youstra and Nidhi Ramanathan.