Day 7: Roller Coaster Funnels & Half-Pipes

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

Big Idea

In this lesson, students will learn how to construct funnels and half-pipes. Then, students will experiment with different ways to successfully attach their tracks, funnels, and half-pipes in their roller coaster prototypes.

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 will open the lesson by showing students another paper roller coaster that features both a funnel and a half-pipe. Next, I will show students how to construct different types of funnels and half-pipes. Finally, students will continue working on their roller coaster models by finding ways to connect tracks, funnels, and half-pipes. At the end of today's lesson, students will take part in a final design review to discuss their failure points and improvements. Tomorrow's lesson will be a work day. Then students will take their models home over the weekend and bring them back for a final presentation day! 

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. Remember, the engineering method is a process in which engineers develop a solution to a problem. It's important to continually research, develop more solutions, test, identify failure points, improve, and evaluate constraints throughout the entire design process! 

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 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

Roller Coaster Components

Prior to today's lesson, students have learned how to create most of the main roller coaster components on our Roller Coaster Parts poster, including a track, jump, rounded turn, elbow turn, loop, half-pipe, funnel, corkscrew, zig-zag track, and a curvy track. Today, students will learn how to construct the last two and most exciting components, the funnel and half-pipe.


Next, I show students another video of a paper roller coaster so that they can visualize the funnel and half-pipe in action. (These are the new components that students will be constructing today.) As a side note, the paper roller coaster in this video was created by a teacher. It's great to see that adults have failure points too (such as the marble coming to stop before reaching the end). 

Testing Components Discussion

At this point, we continuing discussing the importance of testing, identifying failure points, and improving our designs by returning to a t-chart created to compare roller coaster components and possible ways to test each component. Today, we add "time wasters" (half-pipe & funnel) to the left column and we make a list of ways to test the funnel and half-pipe in the right column: Component Testing Poster. One by one, students offer a variety of ways that they can test the "time wasters" of their roller coaster. I document their ideas on the poster and students also record them in their student journals: Example of Student Journal

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 coasters 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. 


50 minutes

Teacher Demonstration

I invite students to join me at the back table so that I can demonstrate how to make funnels and half-pipes. I begin by demonstrating how to make a simple funnel: Simple Funnel. Next, I show students how to make a More Complicated Funnel using a compass. By providing two options, I'm also providing students with a greater accessibility to learning. 

Next, I show students how to make a Half-Pipe. You'll notice that I don't spend too much time demonstrating these new components. This is partly because I want students to have as much time as possible constructing their models and it is also because my students are quite comfortable making roller coaster parts at this point. 

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. 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. Does your design team agree? 
  8. What are you trying to focus on? 
  9. Why is that important as a roller coaster engineer?
  10. Where might you place a half-pipe?
  11. Why are you choosing to include a funnel? 
  12. Did you have any failure points?
  13. How did you improve your design?


During this conference, Student Discussing Design, a student explains where he plans to place a half pipe. We also discuss a failure point and how he used the failure point to improve his design.

This student, Examining Failure Points, is in the middle of adding on to his design, but when he shows me how the model works so far, he discovers a failure point. He explains how he plans on improving the design to make sure it works flawlessly every time.

I love watching this student as she works on Getting Each Component to Work. This is such a great reminder of how complex the design process is, especially when you are dealing with multiple parts working together! 

Reflect & Apply

15 minutes

Design Review Team

Now that students have further experimented with the design process by observing, questioning, and constructing, it is important to provide students with the opportunity to share their findings with others and to collect feedback. For this reason, I invite students to meet with their science teams at this time to participate in a design review. 

Each student is given 3 minutes to present their current design to their team, answer questions, and collect feedback. I have 3 students in each group, so this discussion takes about 12 minutes per team. 

Asking Effective Questions

To help with the questioning process, each team of students will have a stack of design review questions to choose from: Design Review Questions. Prior to today's lesson, I printed these questions on card stock, cut them, placed them in envelopes, and put them in each team's box: Team Box & Supplies

Example of a Design Review

Here, a team of students gather to discuss one student's design: Design Review Process. I'm hoping that through this review process students gain the following: 

1. Presentation and collaboration skills 

2. Ideas for their own roller coaster model

3. A willingness to listen to others and change your own design based upon suggestions

Today, students are thrilled to have the opportunity to present their work with others! Many students are excited to hear how others overcame struggles. Others are excited to talk about their projects! Although, many students might typically struggle with putting themselves out there, my students are so used to sharing their failure points and improvements that they are eager to begin. I think that this is such an important life lesson as well - the importance of learning from failures points as a student, friend, daughter, sibling etc. 

Cleaning Up

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.