Hands-on Activity: Building Roller Coasters
Educational Standards :
Pre-Req Knowledge (Return to Contents)
Students need basic prior knowledge about forces, particularly gravity and friction, as well as some familiarity with kinetic and potential energy. They should also know Newton's second law of motion and understand basic concepts of motion, such as position, velocity and acceleration. Prior to conducting this activity, teach students the physics and engineering concepts in the Physics of Roller Coasters lesson.
Learning Objectives (Return to Contents)
After this activity, students should be able to:
Materials List (Return to Contents)
Each group needs:
Introduction/Motivation (Return to Contents)
During today's activity, you are going to design your own model roller coasters using foam tubes and marbles. I'd like for you to start by drawing your roller coaster on paper before building it. Along with your drawing, give your roller coaster a fun and descriptive name and make a sign for it.
(At this point, show students photographs of some real roller coasters to help them imagine the possibilities for their own coasters. See examples of some of the best current roller coasters in the country at http://www.ultimaterollercoaster.com/coasters/pictures/.)
When engineers design objects and structures, such as the appliances in your homes and other products you use, bridges and roadways, skyscrapers and other structures like amusement park rides, or even bicycles and chair lifts at ski resorts, they work within what they call "constraints." Constraints are project requirements and/or limitations. Engineers must take into consideration these constraints in order to come up with successful design solutions.
In the case of designing roller coasters, what might be some constraints that engineers would have to consider? (Let students think about this and make some suggestions.) Yes, they might have some practical limitations, such as available or preferred building materials, a construction budget and timeframe, safety measures for users, ongoing maintenance requirements and/or anticipated weather conditions. The amusement park client may also give requirements for the type of movement they want for the ride, such as upside-down loops, corkscrews, specific degree turns, length of drops or maximum speed, or safety assurances for users (safe for people taller than four feet high). Another basic constraint that always applies is consideration of the natural physical laws that exist in our world, such as the limits of gravity and effects of slope, speed and friction. This is an example of how an engineer's understanding of the fundamental laws of physics is very important to the success of a project. Coming up with a design solution that takes all these factors into consideration and works reliably, safely and as intended is what engineers do.
When designing your roller coaster, what are the physics concepts that you have learned that will be helpful and very important to apply? (Listen to student ideas. Correct and amend, as necessary. Expect them to suggest ideas from the content they learned in the associated lesson about gravitational potential energy, kinetic energy, gravity and friction.)
That's right, all true roller coasters are entirely driven by the force of gravity. The excitement of a ride comes from the ongoing conversion between potential and kinetic energy, which we know from the law of conservation of energy. Friction is important to slowing down roller coaster cars and acceleration plays a role in the experience provided by roller coaster cars as they move along a track.
And how do these concepts translate to your challenge to design a roller coaster that provides a thrilling experience that is safe for riders? (Listen to student answers. Expect to hear them bring up the following points, which they must understand in order to build and analyze their model roller coasters:
That's right. These are constraints we must take seriously. The first hill must be the highest point or the roller coaster won't work. If a car is not moving fast enough at the top of a loop it will fall off the track. Pay attention to the friction between the car and the track, making it as small as you can so the cars move fast enough to make it through the entire track. Let's get started!
Vocabulary/Definitions (Return to Contents)
Procedure (Return to Contents)
Before the Activity
With the Students
Attachments (Return to Contents)
Safety Issues (Return to Contents)
Troubleshooting Tips (Return to Contents)
If students have difficulty getting their roller coasters to work, revisit the basic physics considerations:
Assessment (Return to Contents)
Activity Embedded Assessment
Applied Physics: Check that each group understands how and why its roller coaster works. If a roller coaster is not working, ask students what they think the problem is. See if they can identify physics constraints and explain problems such as "It's not high enough," or "The marbles rub too much" in physics terms such as "It doesn't have enough potential energy because it's not high enough," or "The friction between the marble and the track is too great."
Worksheet: Have each student (or each group) complete the Roller Coaster Specifications Worksheet, which asks them to identify some critical points of the roller coaster as well as other specifications such as height and the number of loops and turns. Review students' answers to gauge their comprehension of the concepts.
Presentations: Have each group present its roller coaster model to the class. Use the Suggested Scoring Rubric to evaluate the roller coasters for the class competition. Discuss the results as a class, asking students:
Activity Scaling (Return to Contents)
Copyright© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2007 Duke University
Supporting Program (Return to Contents)Engineering K-Ph.D. Program, Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University
Last Modified: December 4, 2013