Students explore the physics exploited by engineers in designing today's roller coasters, including potential and kinetic energy, friction and gravity. First, they learn that all true roller coasters are completely driven by the force of gravity and that the conversion between potential and kinetic energy is essential to all roller coasters. Second, they consider the role of friction in slowing down cars in roller coasters. Finally, they examine the acceleration of roller coaster cars as they travel around the track. During the associated activity, students design, build and analyze model roller coasters they make using foam tubing and marbles (as the cars).
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 Standard Network (ASN), a project of JES & Co. (www.jesandco.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.
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- International Technology and Engineering Educators Association: Technology
- E. Energy is the capacity to do work. (Grades 6 - 8)  ...show
- F. Energy can be used to do work, using many processes. (Grades 6 - 8)  ...show
- I. Much of the energy used in our environment is not used efficiently. (Grades 6 - 8)  ...show
- J. Energy cannot be created nor destroyed; however, it can be converted from one form to another. (Grades 9 - 12)  ...show
- Next Generation Science Standards: Science
- 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)  ...show
- Construct, use, and present arguments to support the claim that when the motion energy of an object changes, energy is transferred to or from the object. (Grades 6 - 8)  ...show
- North Carolina: Math
- Solve linear equations in one variable. (Grade 8)  ...show
- Use units as a way to understand problems and to guide the solution of multi-step problems; choose and interpret units consistently in formulas; choose and interpret the scale and the origin in graphs and data displays. (Grades 9 - 12)  ...show
- North Carolina: Science
- Understand characteristics of energy transfer and interactions of matter and energy. (Grade 6)  ...show
- Understand forms of energy, energy transfer and transformation and conservation in mechanical systems. (Grade 7)  ...show
- Explain how kinetic and potential energy contribute to the mechanical energy of an object. (Grade 7)  ...show
- Explain how energy can be transformed from one form to another (specifically potential energy and kinetic energy) using a model or diagram of a moving object (roller coaster, pendulum, or cars on ramps as examples). (Grade 7)  ...show
- Interpret data on work and energy presented graphically and numerically. (Grades 9 - 12)  ...show
- Compare the concepts of potential and kinetic energy and conservation of total mechanical energy in the description of the motion of objects. (Grades 9 - 12)  ...show
- Explain why it is important for engineers to know how roller coasters work.
- Explain in physics terms how a roller coaster works.
- Discuss the effects of gravity and friction in the context of their roller coaster designs.
- Use the principle of conservation of energy to explain the layout of roller coasters.
- Identify points in a roller coaster track at which a car has maximum kinetic energy and maximum potential energy.
- Identify points in a roller coaster track where a car experiences more or less than 1 g-force.
- Identify points in a roller coaster track where a car accelerates and decelerates.
Lesson Background and Concepts for Teachers
|How quickly an object speeds up, slows down or changes direction. Is equal to change in velocity divided by time.|
|The speed needed at the top of a loop for a car to make it through the loop without falling off the track.|
|Any push or pull.|
|A force caused by a rubbing motion between two objects.|
|Also known as a gravitational force. Is equal to the force exerted on an object by the Earth's gravity at sea level.|
|The acceleration caused by Earth's gravity at sea level. Is equal to 9.81 m/sec^2 (32.2 ft/sec^2).|
|A force that draws any two objects toward one another.|
|The energy of an object in motion, which is directly related to its velocity and its mass.|
|The energy stored by an object ready to be used. (In this lesson, we use gravitational potential energy, which is directly related to the height of an object and its mass.)|
|How fast an object moves. Is equal to the distance that object travels divided by the time it takes.|
|A combination of speed and the direction in which an object travels.|
- Building Roller Coasters - Students play the role of engineers in designing and building their own model roller coasters, applying their knowledge of physics.
- What causes gravity?
- What is friction?
- How do potential and kinetic energy differ?
- What is the difference between speed and velocity?
- How is acceleration related to velocity?
Lesson Summary Assessment
- Points of maximum potential and kinetic energy.
- Points of maximum and minimum velocity.
- Points where g-forces greater or less than 1 are experienced.
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). Last 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
© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2007 Duke University
Engineering K-PhD Program, Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University
Last modified: December 1, 2015