Day 5: Roller Coaster Tracks

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

Big Idea

In this lesson, students will construct an example of each track type, including turns, zig-zags, and jumps, for their roller coaster models.

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 begin the lesson by reviewing the types of tracks students can add to their roller coasters. Next, I model how to make each type of track. After each demonstration, students return to their desks to construct each track part on their own.  

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! 


10 minutes

Lesson Introduction & Goal 

I review the learning goal: I can use the Engineering Method to design a paper roller coaster. I explain: Today, we are going to continue working on our prototypes. You have all done an amazing job constructing your support system. Now, we need to talk about the construction of roller coaster tracks! So today, you will get to build each of the following types of roller coaster track. 

Students worry about their paper constraints and immediately want to know if they have to build and use every roller coaster component. I explain that they will need to build every component, but that components can easily be taken a part later on and turned into another part if they so desired. 

Types of Roller Coaster Tracks

I refer to the Roller Coaster Parts poster and point to the following Types of Tracks. I explain: First, we are going to begin with straight tracks, then, you'll learn how to make an elbow turn, a jump, a zig-zag, a loop, a corkscrew, a curvy track, and then a rounded turn. I purposefully order them from easiest to hardest to construct. This may sound like a lot, but several parts are similar to others, making directions much simpler! Also, I take little time introducing the lesson so that students can focus their energy on the construction of parts! Finally, after I model each part, students will immediately construct the same part on their own, increasing the retention rate and each student's ability to make each part. 

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.   

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. 

I ask students to not get their roller coasters for this lesson as we will only be constructing parts. This way, they'll have ample space at their desks! 

Landing Cup

Before we begin constructing the types of tracks, I hand out a Dixie Cup to each student. I show students how to make a Landing Cup (or a place for the marble to stop at the end of the roller coaster) by cutting off the top portion of the cup. The resulting cup is about 1 cm deep.


80 minutes


For each of the following demonstrations, I invite students to join me at the back table. I follow the same process each time.

1. Teacher demonstration (1-4 min.)

2. Students return to desks to complete task & I rotate the room, helping students (5-10 min.)

3. Early finishers help other students get caught up 

4. Students return to the back table for the next demonstration 

As a side note, on average, it takes about 10 minutes for the students to learn and construct each component (which is why this section of the lesson takes about 80 minutes altogether). 

Demonstration # 1: Cutting Strips

I begin by asking students to take out 5 sheets of paper. This is all they will need to build all of the components today. I then show students how to cut all 5 sheets of paper into equal-sized Strips. Here, I explain how to fold and cut to create the tracks: Cutting Tracks. Each student should end up with 20 strips of paper. Each strip should be about 2 1/8 inches wide and 11 inches long.

Demonstration #2: Folding Tracks

Next, I show students how to fold all 20 strips of paper into tracks: Folding Tracks. This should result in in 20 straight tracks. It will be helpful to have a stack of straight tracks ready to use during the roller coaster construction process. 

Demonstration # 3: Elbow Turn

Once all students have their tracks folded, they are now ready to learn how to make an Elbow Turn. This is, by the way, the easiest type of turn students can create! 

Demonstration # 4: Jump

At this point, students should have a stack of straight tracks and an elbow turn, and they can't wait to learn how to construct a Jump. This is where it is helpful for students to have team members, ready to give a helping hand with tape! 

Demonstration # 5: Zig Zag

Moving on in order of complexity, I teach students two ways of constructing the Zig Zag. Either way, students will need to tape on "end caps" to prevent the marble from rolling out of each of the attached straight tracks. Students can choose to cut holes or have the marble slide out the end of the straight tracks into the track below. 

Demonstration # 6: Corkscrew or Loop

After all students successfully make a zig zag on their own, they return to the back table for a demonstration making a loop (a corkscrew is just a series of loops attached together): Corkscrew or Loop. I show students how loops can be placed vertically or horizontally.

Prior to today's lesson, I added a roll of masking tape to each team's box. Of course, students want to know if they actually use the tape! I explain that the tape is only for making loops or corkscrews! 

Students return to their desks. The students on each team take turns helping one another hold and tape a loop together by wrapping tracks around the masking tape. 

Demonstration # 7: Curvy Track

I purposefully save the curvy track and rounded turn for last. They are not only the harder components to make, but also, students will be cutting across the bottom of the track to the fold on the other side where as before, they would simply cut slits in one wall of the track, down to the first fold line. Here's how to make the Curvy Track.

Demonstration # 8: Rounded Turn

The rounded turn was actually the most difficult component for me to figure out! You'll see that I'm still even experimenting with the making of this component during the video: Rounded Turn. The key is to have an extra pair of hands and to press it down on a flat surface while taping.

Monitoring Student Understanding

Once students begin constructing their own roller coaster components, 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. What is important to remember as you construct this part? 
  2. What would happen if you didn't add a piece of paper here? 
  3. What are you watching out for?
  4. What would happen if you?
  5. What is your plan so far?
  6. Does your partner agree? 
  7. What are you trying to focus on? 
  8. How can you make your work more precise?


During this video, you can see how important it is to walk about the room, lending a helping hand or advice along the way: Importance of Cutting all the Way to the Fold. With the corkscrew and loop in particular, it is important for students to cut all the way down to the fold. 

Overall, I was so pleased with the way this lesson went today! If I had taught students how to create each track part all at one time, it would have been near impossible for students to accomplish each task! Also, I could have stretched this lesson out over several roller coaster lessons. However, during future science periods, I really want students to be able to work at their own pace instead of being held back by delivery of instruction.  

Finally, the layout of this lesson supports all learners. As we all know, it can be difficult and time-consuming to walk around the classroom and provide support for all students. For this reason, I encourage early finishers to help others around them. This helps provide early finishers with more practice making the roller coaster components and it helps struggling students complete each task. This allows us to move through the making of each component more efficiently. 

Cleaning Up

Constructing each of the above components took up all of the allotted time for science today! To clean up, students place each of their roller coaster components on the base of their roller coaster: Stack of Roller Coaster Parts. They put unused paper in their individual folders and place their folders in their desks. One member from each team return their team boxes.