Hands-on Activity: Energy on a Roller Coaster

Contributed by: VU Bioengineering RET Program, School of Engineering, Vanderbilt University

Photo shows a desktop-sized model of a roller coaster.
Roller coaster for a physics lab.
Copyright © 2006 Vanderbilt University


Students learn about the conservation of energy and the impact of friction as they use a roller coaster track to collect position data and then calculate velocity and energy data. After the lab, students relate the conversion of potential and kinetic energy to the conversion of energy used in a hybrid car.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Engineers design new and more creative roller coasters all the time. In this activity, students aact as engineers to measure the amount of the different types of energy. An engineering team designing a rollercoaster would need to make sure the cars never runs too fast (velocity) and relate that to how high the drops are using conversion of energy.

Pre-Req Knowledge

Students must have a basic working knowledge of dry lab operations and measurements.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Apply their background knowledge to begin solving the challenge.
  • Relate kinetic energy with gravitational potential energy.
  • Hypothesize about experimental "error."

More Curriculum Like This

Physics of Roller Coasters

Students explore the physics exploited by engineers in designing today's roller coasters, including potential and kinetic energy, friction and gravity. During the associated activity, students design, build and analyze model roller coasters they make using foam tubing and marbles (as the cars).

Middle School Lesson
Pushing It Off a Cliff

This lesson focuses on the conservation of energy solely between gravitational potential energy and kinetic energy, moving students into the Research and Revise step. Students start out with a virtual laboratory, and then move into the notes and working of problems as a group.

High School Lesson
Building Roller Coasters

Students build their own small-scale model roller coasters using pipe insulation and marbles, and then analyze them using physics principles learned in the associated lesson. They examine conversions between kinetic and potential energy and frictional effects to design roller coasters that are compl...

Middle School Activity
Latex and Hybrids: What's the Connection?

Students gain perspective on the intended purpose of hydraulic accumulators and why they might be the next best innovation for hybrid passenger vehicles. They learn about how hydraulic accumulators and hydraulic systems function, specifically how they conserve energy by capturing braking energy usua...

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

  • Develop and use models to illustrate that energy at the macroscopic scale can be accounted for as either motions of particles or energy stored in fields. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Solve linear equations and inequalities in one variable, including equations with coefficients represented by letters. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Represent data on two quantitative variables on a scatter plot, and describe how the variables are related. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • For a function that models a relationship between two quantities, interpret key features of graphs and tables in terms of the quantities, and sketch graphs showing key features given a verbal description of the relationship. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Solve quadratic equations by inspection (e.g., for x² = 49), taking square roots, completing the square, the quadratic formula and factoring, as appropriate to the initial form of the equation. Recognize when the quadratic formula gives complex solutions and write them as a ± bi for real numbers a and b. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Energy cannot be created nor destroyed; however, it can be converted from one form to another. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Use computers and calculators to access, retrieve, organize, process, maintain, interpret, and evaluate data and information in order to communicate. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

Each group needs:

  • Varnier or Pasco photo gate and appropriate software
  • marble (of known mass)
  • marble roller coaster track (similar to one pictured)
  • access to computer and Excel spreadsheet software application

Each student needs:

  • Roller Coaster Worksheet
  • calculator


Yesterday you worked in a virtual lab, but in today'sactivity we will apply what we learned in the virtual laboratory to a hands-on activity. Think of different portions of the virtual lab that will apply to a real-world situation. Always be thinking about conversion of energy and how we can apply what we learn in this activity to our challenge question about hybrid cars.



This activity introduces students to the concept of conservation of energy and the relationship of friction to this interaction.

Before the Activity

  • Make copies of the Roller Coaster Worksheet.
  • Set up marble tracks with photo gates.

With the Students

  1. Assign lab groups of 2-3 people per lab group if possible.
  2. Roll the marble, with the photogate at the prescribed location.
  3. Record the time for the marble to pass the photogate into Table 1.
  4. At each position on the rollercoaster, use the meterstick to measure the height from the lab bench in meters. Record these values in Table 2.
  5. Calculate the potential energies and kinetic energies and record into Table 2.
  6. Calculate the total energies and record into Table 2.
  7. In Excel®, make a graph with Distance along the track (m) on the x-axis and Energy (J) on the y-axis. Put both energy curves on the same plot. This plot must be printed out and stapled to your lab sheet.


Investigating Questions

These question are at the end of the worksheet, but you can delete them and ask these separately.

  1. From your graph, what can you say about the relationship of potential, kinetic and total energies of the marble?
  2. Was the percentage of the marble's total energy that was left at the end of the roller coaster just before it stops at or close to 100%?
  3. Does there appear to be a damping effect when it comes to kinetic and/or potential energy? Why or why not?
  4. How does Question #2 confirm or deny the Law of Conservation of Energy?
  5. Suppose your answer to #2 was "No," was energy lost? Where did the energy go? What supporting evidence do you have to support this?


Pre-Activity Assessment

Estimations: Have students apply the law of conservation of energy to estimate the velocity of the marble at two different points along the roller coaster (middle and end). Assume the marble's energy exists only as potential and/or kinetic energy (i.e., neglect friction). After the activity, compare these two estimates with the measured values to answer the investigating questions. (Hint: Students will need to measure the height of the marble at the start of the rollercoaster, the middle of the rollercoaster and the end to use in their estimation calculations.)

The image shows how to use the law of conservation of energy to estimate the velocity of the marble at the middle of the roller coaster and at the end.
Copyright © 2013 Todd France, University of Colorado Boulder

Activity-Embedded Assessment

Participation: Observe students during the activity and assess each student based on his or her contributions during the lab.

Post-Activity Assessment

Results and Conclusions: Ask students to compare their answers to the Pre-Activity Assessment (estimations) to the results they found by answering the investigating questions on the Roller Coaster Worksheet. Ideally, the velocities they estimated should be slightly greater than the measured values to account for energy lost to friction. If the estimated values are smaller than the measured values, this likely means that the marble was initially pushed or that there is measurement error. After discussing this comparison and reason for error, collect the worksheet. Assess students based on their graph produced in Excel®, as well as the completeness of their worksheet, as well as its accuracy.

Activity Scaling

  • For lower grades, provide more time for group discussions and have them graph by hand.
  • For upper grades, have students determine what other forms of energy friction diverted energy into.


Joel Daniel (funded by the NSF-funded Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power at the University of Minnesota); Megan Johnston


© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2006 Vanderbilt University

Supporting Program

VU Bioengineering RET Program, School of Engineering, Vanderbilt University


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under National Science Foundation RET grant nos. 0338092 and 0742871. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the NSF, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: September 5, 2017