Who doesn’t like a roller coaster? Let me rephrase that… what middle schooler doesn’t like roller coasters? And if they don’t like riding them, I’m pretty sure they would still like the idea of building one!
This is one of my favorite activities of the year. It incorporates concepts of kinetic and potential energy, which is a big standard to cover in sixth grade, while engaging and challenging the students.
I definitely cannot take credit for coming up with this lesson. It was developed through the SLED program. (Science Learning Through Engineering Design) This program, funded by a grant through the NSTF, was a partnership between the SLED program directors and teachers of grades 3-6. Because the program was developed at Purdue University, many local school districts and teachers were able to be a part of developing these lessons. The focus was to increase science learning through engineering design. I worked with the SLED program and its amazing directors for several years and through it, added a bunch of awesome engineering-based projects that align perfectly to Indiana science standards. (Here is more info if you want it!)
Before the Activity
Before starting the roller coasters, my students have learned/reviewed kinetic and potential energy. We do a lab where students “play” with wind up toys, mini circuits, bouncy balls and more, and trace how the energy is transferred in each situation.
I also LOVE showing them this video. It gets stuck in your head, so watch out! But then again, it will get stuck in students’ heads, which is fantastic!
I follow the SLED lesson plan, which you can find here.
Designing the Roller Coasters
To introduce the activity to the students, we begin with the challenge: Indiana Beach wants to build a new roller coaster with a lot of loops, but wants to be as economical as possible. Can they help? Instantly, students are engaged. Indiana Beach? Roller Coasters? Hooked. However, we discuss several concepts before designing.
- What’s the challenge? (To build a roller coaster with loops)
- What is the goal? (The most loop diameter for a limited coast)
- Who are we working for? (Indiana Beach)
- What are somethings that might limit us? (Space, materials, TIME!)
- What concepts in science have we been learning about that will help us here? (Kinetic and Potential energy!!!)
Materials used to build the coasters:
- Insulated pipe tubing. I use 3 ft sections cut in half. These make the “track” for our coaster. You can find them at any hardware store (Lowe’s, Home Depot) or online. You will have to cut them in half.
- Duct tape
- Tacks (longer tacks work better)
- Large pieces of cardboard to secure the coasters on(think refrigerator, tv, large sporting equipment, etc. I had a connection to someone that worked in a bike shop and got several large boxes from him!
The tubing and cardboard can be reused, so you will not need to get all new supplies every year!
Once we review the materials and the goal, students get a few minutes to plan and sketch their designs individually. Next, I put them in groups of 3 (if necessary I make a group of two. Four students seems to be too many in this activity…) and together, they come up with ONE plan that they want to use for their roller coaster.
Each team gets a large cardboard piece which is propped up along the wall around my classroom. This is their roller coaster canvas. They may receive up to 5 pieces of “track” and unlimited amount of duct tape, string and tacks (although all come at a price!). Students typically need about 30 to 35 minutes to design and build their coasters (or really, that is all the time I can give them!). For the coaster, we use a marble. I do allow students to test their coasters as they go so they can make slight adjustments as needed.
While students are building:
I usually walk around during construction, asking questions such as:
- Why did you need to make your second loop smaller than your first?
- Why are you starting the marble so high?
- I see that this loop isn’t working. What do you think the problem is?
Encourage students to think about kinetic and potential energy when responding!
Once time is up, student groups calculate their coaster’s final cost, measure the total loop diameter on the coaster, and calculate a team score. Team scores are the cost divided by the total loop diameter. Lower scores mean the coasters are more cost efficient or have a high loop diameter, which were the goals!
Finally, groups present and test their coasters in front of the class. We take a “roller coaster tour” and walk around the room. Students share their designs, their cost and their team score. Then the moment of truth… will the marble actually make it through the entire track!? I do give students several attempts, but usually there are a few groups that are unsuccessful, and that is ok! At each coaster, students put sticky notes on where they believe the most potential energy and the most kinetic energy are located–super helpful in reminding students about these concepts!
Overall, this lesson takes me about three class periods. However, it solidifies students’ understanding on kinetic and potential energy. And it is fun! They will be talking about their coasters for weeks to come!