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Alumnus’ keynote inspires at inaugural student-led theme park conference

Mechanical engineering graduate Jonathan Smith (BS '05) made his return to The Ohio State University campus as the keynote speaker for the inaugural Students In Themed Entertainment (SITE) at The Ohio State University conference.

SITE was a two-day conference hosted by the student-led Theme Park Engineering Group February 1-2. This unique event offered Ohio State students an opportunity to network with professionals and students from 12 other schools, including Carnegie Mellon University, Purdue University and the University of Notre Dame. Students could also show off any projects they were working on while learning firsthand about industry professionals’ work.

Jonathan Smith closes out his keynote presentationJonathan Smith closes out his keynote presentation | submitted photoAs keynote speaker for the event, Smith shared his expertise from his experience as corporate director of rides and engineering at SeaWorld Entertainment in Orlando, Florida. He first told the story of his entrance into the industry, which began with his Ohio State education.

“I was very lucky to have outstanding professors in the mechanical engineering department who allowed me to use my interest in rides and apply and insert them to many of my design projects,” said Smith.

Next, he discussed the creation of SeaWorld’s latest attraction, Infinity Falls, and the planning, effort and challenges that came with its development. He finished off his presentation with advice for students looking to enter the themed entertainment industry.

Smith expressed his joy for giving back to the Ohio State community.

“It was an honor and pleasure to come back to my alma mater and speak to the many passionate college students that share the same interest in the industry that I do. It was very exciting to hear the many stories and projects that these students are applying to their studies!”

“I am fascinated by the work and energy that the Ohio State TPEG group brings to the themed entertainment industry. Their passion to learn about our work and apply it to their college career is very encouraging to many industry professionals.”

Following Smith’s speech were presentations from other professionals, with topics ranging from ride development to park lighting systems. A 12-person panel discussion with industry professionals rounded out the main event of the conference. Smith’s story, along with those of the other professionals, served to inspire the next generation of theme park engineers.

"I have wanted to design and build theme parks since the sixth grade when I would create rides for a made-up park with my friend,” said Brad Giordano, fifth-year mechanical engineering student and current president of the Theme Park Engineering Group.

For Giordano and his fellow students, this conference served as a successful step in reaching their goals.

“It is incredible to have had a part in organizing the SITE conference after all these years dreaming about joining the industry. It feels like I stepped into my own imagination, but the fact that it is reality is the most exciting part of all of it."

Students and professionals celebrate a successful conference, posing as if on a roller coasterStudents and professionals celebrate a successful conference, posing as if on a roller coaster | submitted photo

The Theme Park Engineering Group was founded in 2006, and, according to the organization, was the nation’s first university-affiliated student-led theme park group. Manoj Srinivasan, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, serves as the organization’s advisor. Students with a passion for themed entertainment meet weekly to educate themselves on the industry and work on projects to prepare for careers in the field.

Mandy Dodge, a fourth-year student in mechanical engineering, described how impactful the group has been to her. "Since joining TPEG, I have met so many people with my same interest and learned how to make my dream of becoming a theme park engineer a reality.”

“TPEG continues to give me opportunities to network with professionals and students in the industry and gain valuable skills that will help me be successful in the future."

Since its inception, Ohio State’s group has inspired the formation of similar groups throughout college campuses in the United States and Canada and will continue to develop the next leaders in the themed entertainment industry.

While no future conference has been announced, there has been interest among both the students and professionals to host SITE again next year.

by Kari Fletcher, department communications intern