Day 1: Roller Coaster Research

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

Big Idea

In this lesson, students will prepare to construct a marble roller coaster by completing background research on roller coasters.

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 STEMvery 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 a fun video of a roller coaster ride, just to get students interested and excited! Then, I will draw and label a roller coaster on poster paper to provide students with some background information before they begin their research.  Students will then analyze three sources to find the answers to explicit questions about roller coasters. 

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.

These are the standards that we will be working toward in the next couple of lessons:

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 (Asking Questions and Defining Problems) and 8 (Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information). The goal is for students to build students' background knowledge so that they can effectively describe problems within the roller coaster system. Also, students will read and comprehend a text on parachutes in order to obtain ideas and to construct research-based roller coaster designs on their own.

Crosscutting Concepts

To relate content across disciplinary content, during this lesson I focus on Crosscutting Concept 2 (Cause and Effect) and 4 (Systems and System Models). In particular, students will be researching the cause and effect relationships within a roller coaster system as they research how roller coasters work. They will also look at the roller coaster system as a group of parts that can carry out functions.

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

ELA Connection

This lesson supports two 5th grade Common Core Standards in reading: 

CCSS.ELA.-LITERACY.RI.5.7: Draw on information from multiple print or digital sources, demonstrating the ability to locate an answer to a question quickly or to solve a problem efficiently.

CCSS.ELA.-LITERACY.RI.5.9Integrate information from several texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably.

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! 


20 minutes

Building Excitement

As students walk in from recess, I play the video found at this link, not for the sake of instruction, but for the sake of student engagement! Students excitedly watch and sing along!

Lesson Introduction & Goal 

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

Review: The Engineering Method

I take a moment to review the The Engineering Method posters. Can anyone remind me why engineers use the Engineering Method? (to find a solution to a problem)

Today, as a roller coaster engineer, you will be focusing on the first two steps of the Engineering Method: 

1. Define the Problem

2. Do Background Research

What do you think a roller coaster engineer's problem would be? (to construct a roller coaster ride that is both entertaining and safe)

Before you begin finding solutions to this problem by building paper roller coaster models, it is important to first do background research! This way, when you come across design questions along the engineering process, you can reflect back on your research to help you make decisions. 

Google Presenation

To guide students during the research process, I create and share a Google Presentation template: Roller Coaster Student Research Template. Within this presentation, students will be taking notes (both on my presentation and on their own research).

The goal is for students to research multiple sources in order to become a roller coaster expert. First, I will present information on a poster, then students will research roller coasters further with partners using the following sources:

Source 1: Machines! Roller Coasters!

Source 2: Wonderoplois: How Roller Coasters Work (This text actually has a "listen" option so that students can listen and read at the same time! This was perfect for my ELL student!)

Source 3: How Stuff Works: How Roller Coasters Work (This text has some advertisements geared toward adults along the edges. I created and shared a pdf version for students: HowStuffWorksRoller Coasters. The only drawback was that there is a GREAT simulation of potential and kinetic energy on page four. I pulled this up on my computer to project for the class during their research time).

Students love being able research a variety of sources!


100 minutes

Roller Coaster Poster

I want to begin today's research by providing students with some information on the science behind roller coasters. Although many of my students have personal experiences on roller coasters, I want to provide them with more background knowledge. This way, as they continue on with their research, they can make connections between the poster and their research and ultimately gain a deeper understanding.

Prior to today's lesson, I projected this Roller Coaster Poster and constructed the following outline: The Roller Coaster System Poster Before. Here's what the finished poster will look like at the end of this lesson: The Roller Coaster System Poster After.

The Roller Coaster System & Subsystems

I begin by explaining the meaning of a system and subsystem. I then label major subsystems in the roller coaster system (such as tracks and the main support structure). Students take notes on the the first slide in their presentation: Roller Coaster Subsystems

Roller Coaster Physics

One by one, I address each of the headings by explaining and taking notes, starting with "Getting to the Top," then "Potential Energy," then "Crest of the Hill" and working up and around the roller coaster to "What acts AGAINST the movement of the train?" Students complete notes on the next two slides: Potential Vs. Kinetic Energy and Why a Roller Coaster Slows Down.

Potential & Kinetic Energy

To help students visualize potential and kinetic energy, I spontaneously grab a balloon, tape, straw, and a string. We discuss how the potential energy increases as more air is placed in the balloon. Likewise, as the potential energy increases, so does the kinetic energy as the potential energy is changed into kinetic energy. Here's a video of this demonstration: Potential Energy Balloon Demonstration.


As we discuss friction, I explain how the wheels rub against the rails of the roller coaster track. This rubbing causes friction, which is force that slows the train down. Inspired by the balloon demonstration, I decide to show students how a balloon rocket will slide along a fuzzy string (yarn) and a smooth string. Of course, the fuzzy string causes more friction and slows the rocket down sooner: Friction Balloon Demonstration.

Students are now ready (and excited) to move on to researching with their partners! 

Importance of Poster

This poster will be an important part of our study of roller coasters. In upcoming lessons, the students and I will refer to it often to make sense of a roller coaster as a system of parts working together and to review how the force of gravity plays a role in the system. 

Also, by just having this poster up during every roller coaster lesson, I'm supporting my ELL student with developing content related vocabulary and other students who need to have repeat exposures to content in order to comprehend new information.  

Monitoring Student Understanding

Once students begin working on their roller coaster prototypes, 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. Can you show me where you used exact details from the text to support your thinking?
  6. Does your partner agree? 

Student Conferences

During this conference, Encouraging More In depth Answers, I encourage students to think deeper and add more in-depth responses by reflecting upon the Roller Coaster System Poster.

Here, Discussing the Importance of Gravity, a student and I discuss the importance of gravity in the roller coaster system. Many students think of gravity as a force that holds you down on Earth. Studying roller coasters pushed them to think about gravity in a new light... as a pulling force that can cause motion. 

Student Work

Here's an example of student work during this time: Student Example of Roller Coaster Research. As you can see, some students added on an "extra notes" slide.