Lesson: Physics of Roller CoastersContributed by: Engineering K-Ph.D. Program, Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University
Educational Standards :
Pre-Req Knowledge (Return to Contents)
Students will 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.
Learning Objectives (Return to Contents)
After this activity, students should be able to:
Introduction/Motivation (Return to Contents)
Today's lesson is going to be all about roller coasters and the science behind them. Before we start talking about physics, though, I'd like for you to share some of your experiences with roller coasters. [Ask students to describe some of their favorite roller coasters and point out some of the unique features of each coaster, such as hills and loops, that relate to the lesson.]
Does anyone know how roller coasters work? You might think that they have an engine inside that pushes them along the track like an automobile. While that is true of a few roller coasters, most roller coasters use gravity to move along the track. Do any of you remember riding a roller coaster that started out with a big hill? In the middle of the track on that first hill, there's a chain that you can see if you look closely enough. That chain hooks on to the bottom of the cars and pulls them to the top of that first hill, which is always the highest point on a roller coaster. Once the cars are at the top of that hill, they are released from the chain and they coast through the rest of the track, which is where the name roller coaster comes from.
What do you think would happen if a roller coaster had a hill in the middle of the track that was taller than the first hill? Would the cars be able to make it up this bigger hill using just gravity? [At this point a demonstration is useful to prove the point. You can take a piece of foam pipe insulation cut in half lengthwise and shape it into a roller coaster by taping it to objects in your classroom. Then using marbles to represent the cars, you can show the students that the first hill of a roller coaster must be the tallest point or the cars won't reach the end of the track. See Building Roller Coasters Activtiy for instructions and the picture on the right for an example.]
From this point, you can play off other students' experiences on roller coasters to move the lesson forward. You can talk about the point in the roller coaster where you travel the fastest, how cars make it through loops and corkscrews, and what causes passengers to feel weightless or very heavy at certain points in the roller coaster. You may want to teach all of these points and possibly more, but the order in which they are taught is not critical to the lesson. Also, it may be more engaging for the students to ask questions based on their experiences with roller coasters and let those questions take the lesson from one point to the next. All of these points can be demonstrated using the foam tubing and marbles, so use them often to illustrate the lesson.
Lesson Background & Concepts for Teachers (Return to Contents)
Vocabulary/Definitions (Return to Contents)
Associated Activities (Return to Contents)
Assessment (Return to Contents)
Before the lesson, make sure students have a firm handle on gravity, friction, potential and kinetic energy, and the basics of motion. This can be done in the form of a short quiz, a warm-up exercise, or a short discussion. Questions that you may wish to include are:
Lesson Summary Assessment
Show the students a photograph of a roller coaster that includes a hill and a loop. They should be able to identify:
Students can be asked to design their own roller coaster or to find an existing roller coaster on the web and identify these characteristics. This could be an introduction to the associated activity, Building a Roller Coaster.
References (Return to Contents)
Bennett, David. Roller Coaster. Aurum Ltd., 1999.
Roller Coaster Database. Copyright 1996-2007. Duane Marden. Accessed 5/3/2007. http://www.rcdb.com/.
Funderstanding Roller Coaster. Copyright 1998. Funderstanding. Accessed 5/3/2007. http://www.funderstanding.com/k12/coaster/.
Loop (Roller Coaster). Modified April 9, 2007. Wikipedia. Accessed 5/3/2007. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loop_%28roller_coaster)
Pescovitz, David. Roller Coaster Physics. Copyright 1998-1999. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. Accessed 5/3/2007. http://search.eb.com/coasters/ride.html.
Neumann, Erik. Roller Coaster Physics Simulation. Copyright 2004. MyPhysicsLab. Accessed 5/3/2007. http://www.myphysicslab.com/RollerSimple.html.
Copyright© 2007 by Engineering K-Ph.D. Program, Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University
including copyrighted works from other educational institutions and/or U.S. government agencies; all rights reserved.
Supporting Program (Return to Contents)Engineering K-Ph.D. Program, Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University
Last Modified: August 7, 2012