Day 3: Roller Coaster Support System

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

Big Idea

In this lesson, students will build their support system, identify failure points, and improve their supports. Students will complete about half of the roller coaster support structure during this lesson.

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 demonstrating how to successfully construct a roller coaster support system. Knowing how important the structure of the roller coaster is, I will explicitly teach students how to construct the most stable support system. Then, students will use the remaining time to build the first half of their support systems.

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.

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! 


20 minutes

Lesson Introduction & Goal 

I review the 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. As roller coaster engineers, you have defined the problem, completed background research, and now you are thinking about possible solutions and beginning to build a roller coaster prototype by working on the support system.

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.   

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 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

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 coaster prototypes 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. 

Testing Components Discussion

After placing their roller coaster prototypes on their desks, I invite students to join me on the carpet with their science journals.

So far, we've only discussed the Engineering Process as steps in a sequential order. Today, I want to encourage students to consciously revisit earlier steps in the Engineering Process throughout the project (instead of following the steps one after the other).

I line up the posters on the board and we discuss which steps they might return to: Returning to Steps. For example, as students are creating their roller coaster prototypes, it is important to continually test, research, evaluate constraints, and consider multiple solutions throughout the process. The alternative is constructing a model and waiting until the end to test, identify failure points, and make improvements. It's much easier to ensure that your roller coaster works flawlessly along the way. Otherwise, you might end up having to take the entire model a part just to fix a problem with the support system. 

This is a perfect opportunity to create a t-chart with students, Component and Tests, so that students are ready to test their roller coaster models along the way: Testing Components Poster. One by one, students offer a variety of ways that they can test the supports of their roller coaster. I document their ideas on the poster and students also record them in their journals: Student Journal.


40 minutes

Teacher Model

After students gather their supplies, I ask them to meet me at the back table to explore how to successfully make their support systems as stable as possible.

At the end of yesterday's lesson, I noticed that many students had a Wiggly Support as the support legs are not creased all the way and are not taped down at a 90 degree angle. I also knew that I needed to teach students how to place support beams between their support towers. 

Knowing the importance of a visual model, I construct my own roller coaster model: Teacher Model to help facilitate this demonstration. I include one wiggly support in my design so that I can specifically address how to fix this problem. 

Teacher Demonstration

During this video, Support System Demonstration, I address the following points:

  • Making "nice, solid creases"
  • Lining up support towers up so that they are "square" for installing support beams 
  • The placement of tape at the base of a support 
  • Reviewing how to create a support or beam
  • Installing a beam with tape
  • Adjusting the size of a beam to fit between support beams
  • Using failure points to improve
  • Testing the stability as you build


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?



Here, Student Testing Model, a student tests his model while constructing supports. I encourage an awareness of the Engineering Method by asking questions to help him link his actions with the engineering process. 

Another student, Student Adjusting Supports, shares how is is going to improve the stability of his support system. I love that he listened so well to the demonstration that he is able to successfully apply design tips! 


Compared to yesterday's lesson, the students' ability to construct supports improved immensely!

The students have a greater attention to detail, are more willing to test along the way, and they are keeping the end result in mind! This goes to show the importance of teacher modeling and explicit directions! 

Student Work

Here are a few examples of student work at the end of this lesson. You can see that we need one more day of working on the support system before moving on!

Reflect & Apply

15 minutes

Design Review Cards

Prior to this lesson, I printed Design Review Questions on card stock, cut them, and placed them in envelopes for each group.

Today, I ask students to label this envelope "Design Review Questions" and to always place them back in their team boxes: Team Box & Supplies.

Design Review Explanation

At this point in the lesson, I notice that we only have 15 minutes left! So, I ask students to stop working so they can participate in a design review. I explain that each student will be given two minutes to explain their projects to their team members. During this time, the team members can ask design review questions or other questions that come to mind. I model this with one group so that students can see and hear what the design review process looks like. I also encourage students to ask their team members for suggestions along the way as well. 

Design Review in Action

Here is an example of a group's Design Review: Design Review Process. I love hearing the students engaged in conversation and developing their presentation skills during this time. 

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.