The mind behind the Ride Engineering Competition

The mind behind the Ride Engineering Competition

How an ISU student created a hands-on theme park competition

By Mallory Tope, Communications Assistant | Published April 9, 2021

Charlie Wickham, ISU grad student in industrial design, created the Ride Engineering Competition to provide students hands-on learning opportunities.

It all started with one idea: an opportunity where students could learn and experience theme park engineering. That idea has since grown into one of the largest hands-on student-driven theme park ride competitions in the country.

Charlie Wickham, current ISU graduate student for industrial design, had the idea while studying mechanical engineering as an ISU undergraduate. He wanted to create a hands-on competition for students interested in theme park engineering.

He co-founded the Theme Park Engineering Group, which is hosting the Ride Engineering Competition on April 17 during Innovate at Iowa State’s inaugural Ignite Innovation Showcase

Wickham said the idea began to formulate as he went around to different competitions within the theme park industry and he noticed there weren’t that many hands-on competitions. 

“What I noticed is pretty much all of the competitions within the theme park industry were designed based either designing a theme park or designing an experience or ride,” Wickham said, explaining how many students made plans on paper and presented them. 

“In my experience with competitions, the parts that you learn the most from are when you have the chance to build something and have it break in some spectacular way that you weren’t expecting.”

Wickham thought the theme park industry was lacking real learning opportunities for students. 

“(For) something on paper, the only problems you could find are the ones you think of that are there. But something that’s actually built, it will bring problems to you,” Wickham said. 

The real brainstorming and development for the competition began when COVID-19 caused shutdowns last year and Wickham had time to dive into the competition idea. He started by designing what he wanted the event to look like three years down the road and then worked backward to how it will function in its first year.

“We’ve designed it to allow students to not only perform engineering at the level of a professional but to be able to surpass the level of a professional and really push above and beyond and stand out as not only being qualified engineers but being some of the best engineers,” Wickham said. 

The kick-off for the competition was in October when 11 teams signed on for the six-month competition in which students are challenged to design and build a ride for 150 scale riders; the rides are small rectangular shapes, similar to the size of a Starburst, Wickham said. Around 90 students are competing this year. 

“They’re not designing something for full-scale riders and scaling it down and presenting a prototype; they’re designing a real final ride for these small riders,” Wickham said. 

Within the competition, students gain experience with system engineering, industry-specific technology, risk assessment and industry safety standards. 

Teams will present their rides on the second day of the Ignite Innovation Showcase, an eight-day free and virtual celebration of innovation taking place across the university. In addition to seeing the theme park rides in action and finding out the winner of the competition, spectators will also have the opportunity to hear first-hand from competition participants and ride engineering experts. 

“We were able to bring that all together to not only give the students hands-on engineering experience but also specific attraction industry technical experience and knowledge,” Wickham said. 

Since this is the first year of the competition, all hands are one deck from the Theme Park Engineering Group; Wickham said that all of the students wanted to join the committee for the competition, leaving no students left to make an Iowa State team. 

With the first year of the competitions coming to an end, Wickham is already looking ahead at competitions years to come. 

“We have big plans on growing this in year two; we want this to be accessible, not only to students who already have been in the world of themed entertainment but also any engineering students who may be interested in this,” Wickham said. 

Learn more about the events taking place during the Ignite Innovation Showcase, and register to join in on the fun, at