Hands-on Activity: Amusement Park Ride: Ups and Downs in Design

Contributed by: Making the Connection, Women in Engineering Programs and Advocates Network (WEPAN)


Students design, build and test model roller coasters using foam tubing, toothpicks and masking tape. As if they are engineers, teams compete to create the winning design based on costs and aesthetics. Guided by three worksheets, students prototype, test, evaluate and finalize their ideas, all while integrating energy concepts. The goal is to understand the basics of engineering design associated with kinetic and potential energy to create optimal roller coasters. The marble (roller coaster car) starts with potential energy that is converted to kinetic energy as it moves along the track. The diameter of the loops that the marble traverses without falling out depends on the kinetic energy obtained by the marble.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

A photograph shows people sitting in a chain of carts going through a full loop on a roller coaster.
Students design, build and test model roller coasters.
Copyright © Microsoft Corporation, 1983-2001

Engineering Connection

Mechanical and civil engineers are involved in the design of roller coasters. Engineers must understand how the basic physics concepts of energy apply to successful roller coasters. The challenge is to make the roller coasters fast and fun, without compromising structural integrity, which is critical for ride safety.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Identify situations in which kinetic energy is transformed into potential energy and vice versa.
  • Identify key steps in the engineering design process.
  • Model, test, evaluate and modify a design.
  • Invent a product to meet a need.
  • Create a prototype and final model, taking design criteria into consideration.
  • Use science, math and engineering principles to design and optimize a product.

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
A Tale of Friction

High school students learn how engineers mathematically design roller coaster paths using the approach that a curved path can be approximated by a sequence of many short inclines. They apply basic calculus and the work-energy theorem for non-conservative forces to quantify the friction along a curve...

High School Lesson
Mathematically Designing a Frictional Roller Coaster

Students apply high school differential calculus and physics to design 2D roller coasters in which the friction force is taken into consideration. Student teams first mathematically design the coaster path (using what they learned in the associated lesson) and then use foam pipe wrap insulation mate...

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

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.

  • Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Develop a model to generate data for iterative testing and modification of a proposed object, tool, or process such that an optimal design can be achieved. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Construct, use, and present arguments to support the claim that when the kinetic energy of an object changes, energy is transferred to or from the object. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Develop a model to describe that when the arrangement of objects interacting at a distance changes, different amounts of potential energy are stored in the system. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Solve quadratic equations with real coefficients that have complex solutions. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Create equations and inequalities in one variable and use them to solve problems. Include equations arising from linear and quadratic functions, and simple rational and exponential functions. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Solve quadratic equations in one variable. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Rearrange formulas to highlight a quantity of interest, using the same reasoning as in solving equations. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Modeling, testing, evaluating, and modifying are used to transform ideas into practical solutions. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Differentiate between potential and kinetic energy. Identify situations where kinetic energy is transformed into potential energy and vice versa. (Grades 6 - 8 ) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Identify and explain the steps of the engineering design process, i.e., identify the need or problem, research the problem, develop possible solutions, select the best possible solution(s), construct a prototype, test and evaluate, communicate the solution(s), and redesign. (Grades 6 - 8 ) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Describe and explain the purpose of a given prototype. (Grades 6 - 8 ) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

To share with the entire class:

  • 5-7 6-foot lengths of foam pipe insulation tubing, cut in half lengthwise per group
  • 2 rolls masking tape
  • 2 boxes round toothpicks (~20 per group)
  • 16 mm marbles (5 per group)

Each group needs:

  • container to catch marbles
  • flexible tape measure
  • scissors and ruler
  • 2 different-colored stickers, one marked "P," the other "K"
  • 3 worksheets


The city of Wahoo wants to build a new roller coaster ride on their town common as part of the celebration of their 300th year. For consistency with the round number, they want a design to be as "loopy" as possible while keeping cost to a minimum. They are looking for engineering designs that optimize the ratio (inches of loop diameter/material costs) and are aesthetically pleasing (look good!). Every section of a roller coaster has different characteristics. Some portions have very light turns while others have more gentle curves and turns. Each scenario has its limits for whether or not it will work.


gravitational force: Force exerted between the Earth and an object that attracts the object toward the Earth.

kinetic energy: Energy associated with motion of an object.

potential energy: Energy an object has because of its relative location.



Roller coasters at amusement parks utilize potential energy and kinetic energy. Typically, a motor pulls up the roller coaster car to gain its initial potential energy. Once at the peak point, no motors are connected to the car in any way. The car begins its winding and looping decent along a track that has been designed to safely convert potential energy into kinetic energy while making it a thrilling ride.

If the car goes through a loop-de-loop and does not have enough kinetic energy, it will not stay on the track as it reaches the peak of the loop. Kinetic energy is measured as KE=(mV2)/2), where m is the mass of the object and V is the velocity. Potential energy is measured as PE =mgh, where m is the mass, g is the gravitational force, and h is the distance above the reference point where the mass starts.

Ideally, all the potential energy is converted to kinetic energy, but in reality, this never holds true, since some of the energy is lost to friction. Because of the loss of energy, the peak of the loops must be lower than the initial starting point of the car. See Worksheet 3 for a reference diagram.

With the Students

Part 1: Preliminary Design and Testing

  1. Show Worksheet 1: Reference Diagram as an overhead transparency OR make copies and distribute as a student handout. Discuss the energy concepts illustrated on the worksheet.
  2. Hand out Worksheet 2: Design and Building Guidelines to all students. Review the task, design criteria and scoring.
  3. Divide the class into groups of three students each.
  4. Give each group 1 marble, a container to catch the marble, 1 foam piece, 1 toothpick, and a one-foot piece of masking tape.
  5. Have each team design and test a preliminary prototype using the provided materials.
  6. As they test, advise the groups to plan their final designs and the amount of materials that they will need. Have them sketch their ideas on paper and fill in quantities of materials on Worksheet 3: Cost and Evaluation Sheet.
  7. After 20 minutes, have students return the materials from the preliminary prototypes and obtain the materials they listed on Worksheet 3 from the "store." If this is done at two separate class times, the materials can be ready for students when they arrive for the second meeting.

Part 2: Final Design and Testing

  1. Permit additional materials to be purchased during the first phase of design and testing, about 30 minutes. Once materials have been obtained from the store, they may not be returned or exchanged.
  2. Give teams 10 minutes to finalize their designs. Give each group 1 "P" sticker and 1 "K" sticker. Remind groups to use the stickers to mark the places on their roller coasters that have the greatest kinetic and potential energy.
  3. When time is up, have groups step back from their roller coasters. Test each roller coaster individually by having a team member release the marble to run through it. Remember, each roller coaster must be able to stand alone and the marble must travel completely from start to finish. Permit at least two tries per coaster, though more testing can be done if time allows.
  4. Identify an "aesthetic rating." Have each group look at all of the roller coaster designs and come up with an aesthetic rating, such as 1-6 if six groups, with 1 being the best. Based on the group responses, the leader announces the ratings.
  5. Have groups measure the diameter of each loop in the roller coaster and total the cost of purchased materials in Worksheet 3.
  6. Have students compute the loop diameter to cost ratio, then add the aesthetic ranking.
  7. After all groups have completed the tests, come to a consensus as a class about the results. Lead a discussion on observations about effective and non-effective solutions. Was there a stronger design/construction that seemed to work? How did potential and kinetic energy play a role? Along with justifying the best design, did your group consider structural integrity? Is the ride safe?


Investigating Questions

  • Where is the potential energy greatest in your system? (Answer: It is greatest at the highest location.)
  • Why do most roller coasters have corkscrew turns instead of loop-de-loops? (Answer: It takes a lot of kinetic energy to make it all the way around a loop-de-loop. Corkscrew turns [twisty downhill turns] simply use the potential energy to gain speed through the turn.)
  • How must the track be designed to keep the car in corkscrew turns? (Answer: The track must be at an angle, tilting forward, instead of level to the ground.)


Pre-Activity Assessment

Observe student participation in class discussion on potential and kinetic energy.

Activity Embedded Assessment

Observe student participation and contribution within groups during the preliminary and final design stages.

Post-Activity Assessment

Estimating Velocity: Have students estimate the velocity at the point where the knetic energy is the highest (the lowest point of the track). Start by estimating the potential energy at the start (PE = m g h ) and then assume that all of this energy is converted to kinetic energy. Solve the equation KE = m v2/ 2 for the velocity. Note: if you set the two equal (m g h = m v2 / 2), you do not need to measure the mass of the ball!

Recap: Assign students to individually describe their roller coaster designs with sketches, explaining what worked and did not work. Review their recaps to gauge their depth of comprehension.

Activity Extensions

Have students research either the history or safety of roller coasters. When was the first loop-de-loop introduced?

Have students calculate the potential energy of the marble at several locations along their tracks.

Activity Scaling

For upper-level students, assign the activity extensions. Also, have them compete for the fastest ride compared to the coaster length.


Marden, Duane. Roller Coaster Database. A comprehensive, searchable database with information and statistics on 5,000+ roller coasters throughout the world. http://www.rcdb.com/


Marthy Cyr; C. Shade


© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2001 WEPAN/Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Supporting Program

Making the Connection, Women in Engineering Programs and Advocates Network (WEPAN)


Project funded by Lucent Technologies Foundation.

Last modified: August 29, 2018