Day 6: Building Up!

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SWBAT use the Engineering Method to design a paper roller coaster.

Big Idea

In this lesson, students will begin placing roller coaster tracks on their support structure and will participate in a design review with their teams to gather feedback.

Lesson Overview

Inquiry Based Instructional Model

To intertwine scientific knowledge and practices and to empower students to learn through exploration, it is essential for scientific inquiry to be embedded in science education. While there are many types of inquiry-based models, one model that I've grown to appreciate and use is called the FERA Learning Cycle, developed by the National Science Resources Center (NSRC):

1. Focus

2. Explore

3. Reflect

4. Apply

A framework for implementation can be found here

I absolutely love how the Center for Inquiry Science at the Institute for Systems Biology explains that this is "not a locked-step method" but "rather a cyclical process," meaning that some lessons may start off at the focus phase while others may begin at the explore phase. 

Finally, an amazing article found at, How Inquiry-Based Learning Works with STEM,very clearly outlines how inquiry based learning "paves the way for effective learning in science" and supports College and Career Readiness, particularly in the area of STEM career choices. 

Unit Explanation

In this unit, students will develop an understanding of gravity while focusing heavily on the 5th Grade Engineering and Design standards. In the first few lessons students will explore the relationships between gravity, weight, and mass. Then, students will apply their understanding of gravity to engineer and design parachutes and roller coasters.  

Summary of Lesson

Today, I will open the lesson by sharing another video of a paper roller coaster. This will provide the opportunity to discuss the placement of different roller coaster parts throughout the system. Students will then experiment with different design options by continuing the construction of their roller coasters by attaching track parts tp the support structure. At the end of the lesson, students will apply, reflect, and gather feedback by participating in a design review with their teams. 

Next Generation Science Standards  

This lesson will address the following NGSS Standard(s): 

5-PS2-1.    Support an argument that the gravitational force exerted by Earth on objects is directed down. 

3-5-ETS1-1. Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.

3-5-ETS1-2. Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.

3-5-ETS1-3.  Plan and carry out fair tests in which variables are controlled and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved. 

Scientific & Engineering Practices

For this lesson, students are engaged in Science & Engineering Practice 1 and 2.

Practice 1 (Asking Questions and Defining Problems): I'd like to encourage students to not just ask questions and define problems at the beginning of the design process, but throughout the entire process. 

Practice 2 (Developing and Using Models): The goal is for students to begin making a physical replica of a roller coaster system and to use the model to test cause and effect relationships.

Crosscutting Concepts

To relate content across disciplinary content, during this lesson I focus on Crosscutting Concepts 2 and 4.

Crosscutting Concept 2 (Cause and Effect): In particular, students will be using their roller coaster model to analyze each roller coaster component and how it interacts with other the other components.

Crosscutting Concept 4 (Systems and System Models): Students will be evaluating cause and effect relationships as they begin constructing and testing their roller coaster designs. 

Disciplinary Core Ideas

In addition, this lesson also aligns with the Disciplinary Core Ideas:

ETS1.A:  Defining and Delimiting Engineering Problems

ETS1.B:  Developing Possible Solutions

ETS1.C:  Optimizing the Design Solution

PS2.B. Types of Interactions

Choosing Science Teams

With science, it is often difficult to find a balance between providing students with as many hands-on experiences as possible, having plenty of science materials, and offering students a collaborative setting to solve problems. Any time groups have four or more students, the opportunities for individual students to speak and take part in the exploration process decreases. With groups of two, I often struggle to find enough science materials to go around. So this year, I chose to place students in teams of three! Picking science teams is always easy as I already have students placed in desk groups based upon behavior, abilities, and communication skills. Each desk group has about six kids, so I simply divide this larger group in half. 

Gathering Supplies & Assigning Roles

To encourage a smooth running classroom, I ask students to decide who is a 1, 2, or 3 in their groups of three students (without talking). In no time, each student has a number in the air. I'll then ask the "threes" to get certain supplies, "ones" to grab their computers, and "twos" to hand out papers (or whatever is needed for the lesson). This management strategy has proven to be effective when cleaning up and returning supplies as well! 


15 minutes

Getting Ready: Gathering Supplies

One student from each group grabs their box from the stack of Team Boxes on the counter. Each team box is labeled "Pink Team," "Green Team," etc. Here are the labels: Team Labels.

In each box, I have a tape dispenser (I found them for  $1.50 each.), two rolls of tape, three marbles, Design Review cards in an envelope (for a later lesson), and I'll add a roll of masking tape later on: Team Box & Supplies.

At the beginning of this Roller Coaster Engineering Challenge, each student was given 30 sheets of card stock. To keep track of unused paper, each student has a folder that they keep in their desks to hold their card stock paper. 

Roller Coasters

Students also grab their roller coasters at this time. To help with the management of gathering and putting back roller coasters, I gave each team the same color poster board as their team name. For example, the black team all had black poster board bases for their roller coasters. I was hoping this would help students locate their roller coasters quickly during future lessons. In addition, I designated a spot for each team's roller coasters in the room. This proved to be helpful as students won't have to go looking for a spot each time we clean up our materials. After students have placed their roller coasters on their desks (Roller Coaster Support Systems on Desks), I invite them to join me on the front carpet with their science journals.


I want to inspire interest in today's lesson and capitalize on student curiosity, so I show students another paper roller coaster video. Throughout the video, I point out design components, such as a jump, a loop, or a rounded corner. I want students to see these parts in action and to visualize how much energy is needed for the marble to get through each component. 

Roller Coaster Review

I want students to continually connect their roller coaster models with the real world. Using the The Roller Coaster System Poster, I ask students:

1. Where is the potential energy the greatest? (crest of the hill)

2. Why is gravity an important force in your roller coaster system? (gravity pulls the marble downward, chaining the potential energy into kinetic energy)

3. How will the marble run out of energy? (turns, hills, loops, friction, air resistance)

Lesson Introduction & Goal 

I review today's learning goal: I can use the Engineering Method to design a paper roller coaster.

The Engineering Method

I take a moment to review the The Engineering Method posters. I ask: Once you have tested your design, are you done using the Engineering Method? Students once again point out the importance of returning to previous steps multiple times throughout the project because you'll often find failure points that will lead to improvements. Testing, identifying failure points, and making improvements is such an important part of the engineering process that revisiting these concepts frequently is important. 

Reviewing the Engineering Challenge

At this point, we briefly review the engineering ProblemConstraints, and Criteria for Success.


  • Each group will share one roll of scotch tape
  • Each student will be given 30 sheets of card stock paper
  • Time to Complete: 1 week 


Criteria for Success

  • The roller coaster must be designed for a glass marble
  • No one can touch the roller coaster once the ride begins
  • The marble must travel through the whole ride (top to bottom)
  • Size: must fit on an 11" x 14" piece of poster board (1/2 a poster board)... I changed this! Originally, this was a 8.5" x 11" piece of card stock. Looking back, I'm SO glad I made this change! 
  • Height: no higher than 1 meter


Testing Components Discussion

At this point, we continue discussing the importance of testing, identifying failure points, and improving our designs by returning to a t-chart created to compare roller coaster components and possible ways to test each component. Today, we add "tracks" to the left column and we make a list of ways to test tracks in the right column: Testing Components Poster. One by one, students offer a variety of ways that they can test the tracks of their roller coaster. I document their ideas on the poster and students also record them in their student journals: Student Journal Example.


45 minutes

I explain: Now that you have constructed several different track parts, including a loop, an elbow turn, and a jump, it's now time to begin placing tracks on your support structure! I know that some of you have in mind that you'll be using funnels and half-pipes as well. Be sure to keep some spots open for these components as you'll be learning about them tomorrow! 

Monitoring Student Understanding

Once students begin attaching tracks to their roller coaster support systems, I conference with every group. My goal is to support students by asking guiding questions (listed below). I also want to encourage students to engage in Science & Engineering Practice 7: Engaging in Argument from Evidence

  1. Why do you suppose ____? 
  2. What have you found so far? 
  3. Has your thinking changed? 
  4. How did you decide _____?
  5. What challenges are you facing?
  6. Have you discovered any failure points? 
  7. How are you improving your design? 
  8. How much energy will be necessary for the marble to travel through this component?

Student Conferences

Some incredible student conferences occur during today's lesson! 

During one conference, I ask a student how he could slow the marble down as it moves down a track toward the landing cup. He points out that he could decrease the slope of the track. I ask him if there's anything else he could do. After a few moments, I encourage him to think about friction (introduced earlier on The Roller Coaster System Poster). He then came up with the idea to tape paper inside the track to increase friction and slow the the marble down. Later on, he excitedly asks me to return to his design and he share how he successfully uses friction in his design! 

During every conference, students are willing and able to explain how they used failure points to improve their design. While identifying failures can be difficult for students, my class seems to embrace failure as an important part of the design process that they should be proud of! 

Student Work

Here are a few examples of student roller coasters during this time. It was so much fun to watch each of them progress as they used the engineering method! 

Reflect & Apply

15 minutes

Design Review Team

Now that students have further experimented with the design process by observing, questioning, and constructing, it is important to provide students with the opportunity to share their findings with others and to collect feedback. For this reason, I invite students to meet with their science teams at this time to participate in a design review. 

Each student is given 3 minutes to present their current design to their team, answer questions, and collect feedback. I have 3 students in each group, so this discussion takes about 12 minutes per team. 

Asking Effective Questions

To help with the questioning process, each team of students will have a stack of design review questions to choose from: Design Review Questions. Prior to today's lesson, I printed these questions on card stock, cut them, placed them in envelopes, and put them in each team's box: Team Box & Supplies

Collecting Suggestions

As students present their work and answer questions, some remarkable conversations result. One student asks,"Did you add this part because your marble kept falling out?" The student explains that it did at first, but that she decided to build a taller wall on her track just to be safe. Another student asks, "What are you going to do next?" The student then explains how he plans to keep building by adding more tracks and components until he reaches the top. 

I love listening to one student ask her team members, "Do you have any suggestions on how my design can improve?" This is such a tough question to ask, but yet one that is very necessary in order to glean as much as possible from the design review process. These conversations turn out to be great opportunities for students to get ideas from others!

Cleaning Up

To clean up, students place any extra parts on the base of their roller coaster. They put unused paper in their individual folders and place their folders in their desks. One member from each team return their team boxes. Then, each team of students place their roller coasters in their designated spot in the classroom.