Free enamel pin when you buy any two Atlas Obscura products. Shop now.

Fleeting Wonders: Those Wacky MIT Kids Built A Roller Coaster

The newest iteration of the MIT Freshman Orientation Coaster. (Photo: Atlas Obscura)

Ah, freshman college orientation—a time of boisterous dorm rivalries, a capella tryouts, and helping your institution’s upperclassmen construct a rickety three-dip roller coaster out of wood. 

This tradition is particular to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where what is normally a small leafy lawn near the East Campus dorm has become a temporary amusement park. 

Roller coaster building has been an East Campus hobby since the mid-2000s—see 2010’s offering, the “Reverse Cowgirl,” which slingshotted upside-down students through a U of death. Thanks to increased attention from safety-minded Cambridge officials, the tradition sputtered out until last year, when three juniors from the Mechanical Engineering department reinstated it and called it “bigger and better than ever.” 

The trio worked hard to design a structure that would, in their words, “moderate the g-force on riders, but still maintain the ambitions of a multi-hilled profile”—Mech E speak for “maximize fun while minimizing concussions.” 

After removing some more boundary-pushing features, like a loop-de-loop (MIT’s Environment, Health and Safety department “said no upside-down people, period,” the team wistfully recalled), the designers got the stamp of approval from a local engineering firm—and therefore, Boston Magazine explains, from the city as a whole. They then put their new classmates to work building the thing.

This year’s coaster is now in its full-flight phase, entertaining new kids nightly. The final design involves a long first drop, a couple of swoops up and down, and a very tall, steep final ascent. Although this last hill is meant to slow things down—riders only climb it a certain distance before rolling backwards again, and friction eventually brings the whole thing to a stop—it appears, on first glance, to be a chute into nothingness, making it a perfect college orientation activity.

Every day, we track down a fleeting wonder—something amazing that’s only happening right now. Have a tip for us? Tell us about it! Send your temporary miracles to [email protected].