Day 4: Completing the Roller Coaster Support System

11 teachers like this lesson
Print Lesson


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

Big Idea

In this lesson, students continue working on their roller coaster support systems. Also, I introduce a variety of paper roller coaster components so that students can construct a design of their roller coaster on paper.

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 showing students a variety of components that they could include in their roller coaster models. Next, I ask students to complete a labeled design on paper before continuing with their projects. Students, then work on finishing their roller coaster 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! 


30 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. What if I told you that you have to follow the engineering method in order and that you can never go back to earlier steps? Students were appalled! They explained that you need to continually return to steps in order to test, improve, and retest your design throughout the process of building a roller coaster model. One student explains, "You wouldn't want to wait until the end to find the failure points. You want to know right now so that you can fix them as you go."

Testing Components

I take this opportunity to review the Testing Components Poster from yesterday's lesson. I ask: Can you tell me how you tested your support system yesterday? How did it help you? Students explain how they shook their structure to ensure stability and how they made improvements by adding tape or by adding more supports. 

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. 


After placing their roller coaster models on their desks, I invite students to the front carpet. I want to build up a renewed excitement toward building paper roller coasters, so I show students this incredibly engaging video! Students can't believe that someone was able to construct a 16-foot tall paper roller coaster! Before pushing play, I ask students to begin thinking about the components (or parts) that they would like to include in their own models! 

Roller Coaster Design & Components

Now that students have part of their support structure in place, I introduce the main roller coaster components (without explaining how to make each part), and then students will draw their designs on paper. This way, they have a tentative plan and an idea about where to head next! 

As a side note: up until this point, I have purposefully held off on asking students to create a roller coaster design on paper. I know it might seem odd to be asking students to create a design now, on day 4 of this project, however, completing research (day 1), introducing the challenge (day 2), and allowing students the opportunity to begin constructing their support system (day 3) will help scaffold the complex task of drawing a paper roller coaster model on paper. Not only are there a lot of parts to take into consideration, but my students don't have any experiences with building paper roller coasters! Even at this point, it is challenging for my students to visualize and draw their roller coaster designs!


Before the lesson, I constructed the main roller coaster components, including a track, jump, rounded turn, elbow turn, loop, half-pipe, funnel, corkscrew, zig-zag track, and a curvy track.

At this time, I hang up and introduce each of these components on the white board with magnets: Components 1 and Components 2. After today's lesson, I create a much more organized display poster: Roller Coaster Parts using the following labels: Roller Coaster Parts Poster Labels.

Designs on Paper

Next, I pass out a sheet of paper to each student and ask them to draw and label their roller coaster design. I ask students to complete their designs on paper and to raise their hands and check with me before completing their support systems.


50 minutes

Monitoring Student Understanding

Once students begin working on their roller coaster designs and 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. Can you explain your design to me?
  2. Why do you suppose ____? 
  3. What have you found so far? 
  4. Has your thinking changed? 
  5. How did you decide _____?
  6. What would happen if you?
  7. What is your plan so far?
  8. Does your partner agree? 
  9. What are you trying to focus on? 
  10. Why is that important as a roller coaster engineer?


Here, Student Explaining Design, I encourage a student to think about the amount of energy it will take for her marble to successfully make it through her roller coaster design. 

This student, Taking the Criteria into Consideration, explains how she has included "time wasters" such as funnels and half-pipes to meet the criteria for success, making sure the marble travels through the roller coaster as slow as possible.

As students finish their designs, they move on to completing their support structures. Instead of giving advice myself, I often ask teams of students to provide suggestions: Encouraging Suggestions.  

Student Designs

Here are a few examples of student designs during this time. From now on, students will have their designs out during every roller coaster lesson.


Student Roller Coasters

Most students were able to finish their support systems during this time. If they are not finished, they will continue working on them during future lessons by installing more supports as they build their tracks from the bottom up: 


Cleaning Up

Instead of completing a Design Review (like yesterday), I decide to provide students with more time to complete their support structures. 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.