Day 2: Roller Coaster Engineering Challenge

35 teachers like this lesson
Print Lesson


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

Big Idea

In this lesson, students will learn about the Roller Coaster Engineering Challenge, such as the constraints and criteria for success. Students will also begin building supports for their marble roller coaster model.

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 theFERA 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 a student's paper roller coaster video posted online. Then, we will go over the roller coaster design challenge, including the criteria for success and constraints on materials. Students will then begin building the supports for their roller coaster support system. 

Next Generation Science Standards  

This lesson will support 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.

Science & Engineering Practices

For this lesson, students are engaged in Science & Engineering 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 Concept 2: Systems and System Models. In particular, 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! 


30 minutes


I begin today's lesson by showing the following video. I want student to visualize an example of a roller coaster prototype. 

I know that it may seem that I overuse video clips, but just the other day, a student came up to me and said, "I love that you show us videos! It really helps me understand science!"

Roller Coaster Poster

While I don't take the time to specifically review the The Roller Coaster System Poster today, students and I 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.  

Lesson Introduction & Goal 

I review the 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. Yesterday, you began using the Engineering Method to construct a roller coaster model by defining the problem and doing background research. Today, as roller coaster engineers, we will be going over the criteria for success and constraints. Then, you'll begin thinking about possible solutions and building a roller coaster prototype! Excitement fills the air and students ask, "We really get to start building today?!" 


Prior to this lesson, I created a poster to help introduce this Roller Coaster Engineering Challenge. I review the engineering Problem

I explain that students will be constructing their own individual roller coasters, but they will be working as a team as well by lending a helping hand, providing design advice, and sharing tape.


Then, I reveal the next section of the poster. One at a time, we discuss the Constraints on the project:

  • 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 


I explain that students will be able to take their projects home over one weekend. The following week, students will present and demonstrate their model to the class. Students then want to know if they can use extra supplies at home or how they'll manage to split up the tape amongst group members. I decide that they can use their personal scotch tape when they take home the project. 

Criteria for Success

Next, we discuss the Criteria for Success

  • The roller coaster prototype 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


Gathering Supplies

Prior to today's lesson, I set up 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 this time, I grab one of these boxes and explain the materials within. 

On the back table and on another counter, I place four piles of card stock: Cardstock Piles, based on color. Even though students will eventually get 30 sheets each, to avoid confusion, I first ask students to at first grab 7 sheets of each of the 4 colors. Thereafter, I ask students to go back and grab 2 more sheets of any color. As they return to their desks, I ask students to switch with a partner so that they can check to make sure each student successfully obtained 30 sheets each. 

Poster Board

Prior to today's lesson, I cut multiple colors of poster board in half to create 11" x 14" pieces. These will serve as the base of each student's roller coaster prototype.

Roller Coaster Management

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. 


30 minutes

Teacher Demonstration

After students gather their supplies, I ask them to meet me at the back table to explore how to construct the first roller coaster component, supports. I ask a student to film as I will eventually post all videos on my Google Drive for students to access if needed (at school or at home): Demonstration-How to Make Supports

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. What would happen if you?
  6. What is your plan so far?
  7. Does your partner agree? 
  8. What are you trying to focus on? 
  9. Why is that important as a roller coaster engineer?


Most students are able to successfully construct at least one support following the demonstration. However, some need a little extra support. In particular, I notice students folding in the wrong direction or cutting too long of slits up the support. 

I meant to capture video footage during this time, but I spent most of this time showing students how fold the paper "hot dog style" instead of "hamburger style" and how to a achieve a more even fold.

Also, students end up only having about 15 minutes to begin their projects and, out of all of our roller coaster lessons, this is the one that students worked the slowest (due to the newness of the project, lack of experience, and worry about wasting paper). 

Student Work

Here's an example of a student finding her own strategies to create a successful design: Constructing Supports. I was happy to see her connecting the stability of the supports and her "beginning" decisions with the criteria for success and end result. 

Cleaning Up

At the end of today's lesson, I pass out a folder to each student for keeping their card stock safe and together 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.