Roller Coaster Inquiry

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Students will be able to evaluate what sections of a roller coaster have potential energy and kinetic energy and how energy transfers throughout a roller coaster.

Big Idea

To investigate how energy trasnfers throughout a system like a roller coaster.

Activating Prior Knowledge

5 minutes

The goal of this lesson is for students to be able to design and build a roller coaster through an online simulation. Students design and create roller coasters in the simulation (SP3, SP6). As they try to build a successful roller coaster, they make changes and explain using evidence why they made those changes (SP7, SP8). Students learn about the energy transfers that occur throughout a roller coaster to help it to work (HS-PS3-1). They have learned about work and power but now before we move into energy, I want students to make a connection to the first day of the unit when we introduced the roller coaster project. 

To begin this lesson, students refer back to the Roller Coaster Project Letter that started out energy unit to review what we needs to include in roller coasters that they build as an end of the unit project. To do this, I ask students to tell me what the end goal of the unit is and what the requirements are. Students identify the important things like starting at least 1 meter above the ground, including at least 2 hills and at least 1 loop. They also recall that the ride must be fun and safe for all patrons that ride our roller coasters. I like to make this connection to what we talked about earlier in the unit so they can see how what they already learned and what they will learn is connected to the project and the real-world.

Roller Coaster Discovery: Guided Inquiry

45 minutes

Students work with a partner to design a roller coaster through the game Coaster Creator. This discovery allows the students to apply their real life experiences with roller coasters and amusement parks. It provides all students with a common experience that I can refer to in future lessons. It also helps students to discover things on you own. The goal of this activity is for students to investigate what works when building a roller coaster and how energy transfer plays a role in roller coasters.

As you can see in Classroom Video: Random Grouping Cards, the students are paired up randomly using grouping cards. To do this, I cut pictures into two pieces before class and then I split up the pictures by table making sure that they were not paired up with someone at their table. Then students get up and find the person who has the other half and sit next to that person at a table. Students are then given roles of the builder and the recorder. The builder is in charge of everything on the computer and creating the roller coaster. The recorder is in charge of talking about the questions with their partner and writing the answers to the debrief questions.

In this game, they can change multiple things about their roller coaster from the mass and number of carts all the way to the steepness of hills and size of loops on the coaster. As you can see in Classroom Video: Modeling, I show students how to work the simulation so that they can get right to building the roller coasters to work toward a success. The simulation I give the students is to create a roller coaster that fulfills the criteria for the roller coasters they will build at the end of the unit and still be fun and safe. The game allows for the students to be unsuccessful if the coaster is unsafe and crashes into the end. The game also rates the coaster based on the elements they include (ex. loops, hills, drops) and tells them how “fun” they are.

Once I have modeled the simulation for the students, I ask students to work with their partner to create a roller coaster that is successful. Classroom Video: Simulation Inquiry shows that students continue to make changes to their roller coaster until they have a success. As they make changes I have them draw their roller coaster and write down whether it was a success or a failure and why. 

When the pair has a successful roller coaster, they call me over to watch the video. As you can see in the Classroom Video: Explain Your Thinking, I ask students to tell me what changes they made and explain to me why they made them. They can use their notes on the paper shown above to help them but they still need to explain what they did. My goal here is to actually see into their minds in how they decided to change different parts of their roller coaster when it failed and why.

In order for students to go at their own pace, once students complete one they are asked to complete another design until every pair is finished. If some groups are struggling, I had other students that had multiple successful roller coasters try to help the other groups.

Once students had completed a roller coaster they answer the questions on the Coaster Creator Activity document about the roller coaster that helped them connect the energy levels with the different elements of the roller coaster and how they are ordered in the roller coaster.

Debrief Discussion

10 minutes

After all students are able to succeed once, we have a discussion about what they saw and their answers to the questions in Coaster Creator Activity. This discussion leads into what is important to include in a roller coaster to be safe and fun. It also leads into a better discussion about where there are different types of energy and how the energy changes throughout the coaster. I do this discussion to help students to process what they saw in the activity and how it relates to energy.

I run this discussion by asking each question to get responses from multiple groups to see similarities and differences between the groups' experiences as shown in Classroom Video: Processing Questions. I like for the students to see that most groups found the same things as they did even through they made entirely different roller coasters. It is important for students to recognize that the energy that is present at each point of the roller coaster is related no matter what your roller coaster looks like compared to another.

We discuss that there are important features like a large hill at the beginning that show us that we need to start with potential energy and at the end of the track we need to have it come to a gradual stop so we can't have a hill going into the end. Students can pull out so much about energy from this roller coaster activity so that we are able to have a more formal discussion about the different types of energy during the next class period now that they have discovered some important things about energy and activated prior knowledge.

Post-It Corners Exit Slip

10 minutes

After the discussion, each pair of students has three post-it notes. They see the four questions of the Post-It Corner Activity and then choose three that they will answer, one per post-it note. I do this activity to end class because it is a way for their group to process what they learned today about roller coasters in general and how they can relate to energy. Below you can see their responses for each question. The Classroom Video: Four Corners Post-It Exit Slip shows this activity in action.