Day 9: Roller Coaster Prototype Analysis

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

Big Idea

In this lesson, students will analyze the ride time of their roller coaster protocols by testing and calculating the average ride time.

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, students will begin by testing and recording the ride times of their roller coaster protocols. Next, we will discuss the meaning of averaging and students will find their average ride time. Finally, student will analyze why their roller coaster ride times were above or below average. 

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 4: Analyzing and Interpreting Data. Students will measure and record the ride times of their protocols. Next, they will calculate the average and further analyze the data. 

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

Math Integration

At the 5th grade level, it is important for students to be exposed to as many meaningful opportunities as possible to represent and interpret data. The 5th grade Measurement & Data standards (5.MD.B.2) specifically addresses line plots in "fractions of a unit." I interpret this to also include decimal numbers as decimals are fractions of a whole.

While finding the quantitative measures of center (such as the mean) is a 6th grade standard (6.SP.B.5.C), I believe it is important to stretch up to the 6th grade standards once in a while (with teacher support), just as you would stretch students in the area of reading by introducing students to complex texts beyond the 5th grade level. 

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. I explain: Now that all of you have a final roller coaster model, it is important to complete the engineering process by testing your model, analyzing the results, and communicating the results to others. 

Upcoming Presentations

During the next two days, students will be presenting their roller coasters and communicating their results to not only our class, but several other classes in our school. We will set up the paper roller coasters on the floor of a large room so that younger students can see the marble rolling through each of the roller coaster components. To prepare for these presentations, students will need to gather more information on their roller coaster models by testing. 

Ride Times Chart

One of the criteria for this roller coaster challenge is to create a paper roller coaster where a marble takes as much time as possible to travel from the top to the bottom. 

I pass out a digital timer to each group and a copy of Roller Coaster Ride Time Graph to each student. 

Who is ready to test the final ride times of your roller coasters? Every student is excited and can't wait! Although, there are a few who want to make final adjustments before testing. Also, most students have tested the ride times of their roller coasters throughout the design process so today's times won't be too much of a surprise! 

To encourage a supportive atmosphere, I ask students: What's more important? Having the slowest roller coaster... or learning about gravity and using the engineering method to construct a model?  

I refer to the Roller Coaster Ride Time Graph and ask students to only focus on the chart in the upper left hand corner. I ask students to test their model five times and to record the results to the nearest hundredth of a second. We actually haven't learned about decimal numbers yet this year in math, so students communicate their results in a less sophisticated way then what is expected at the end of the year (example: "5.36 as five point three six instead of "five and thirty-six hundredths"). We'll eventually get there!

Testing the Ride Times

At first, I thought that some teams of three might struggle with only having one timer, however this works out great as two students can test one roller coaster while the third student makes a couple adjustments before beginning. 

For the purpose of science and analyzing data, I ask student to include the trials in which the marble stops rolling or rolls off the side of the track. This is challenging for students as they prefer to only write down the best times. Here, Student Recording Ride Times, a student explains why the marble is slower during one trial over another.

Also, here's an example of a three-person team taking turns with timing one another: 


40 minutes

Powerpoint Presentation

Once student successfully tested and recorded five ride times, I ask the class to join me on the front carpet with a calculator, their Roller Coaster Ride Time Graph paper, a clipboard, and a pencil. 

I project the following presentation to help guide instruction on calculating the mean: Data Analysis Presentation (Before Lesson). I begin by explaining the definition of mean (What is the mean?) and how to calculate the mean (Calculating the Mean). We also discuss real life examples of when people calculate the mean (average), such as calculating the average number of students in each class, the batting average of a baseball player, or the average number of hours a student reads each night over the course of a week. 

I show students the next slide, Average # of Baskets, and altogether, we calculate the average number of baskets made by each student.

Average Practice Time Video

Students catch on rather quickly, but I still want to provide further practice so I use a video to further teach this concept. (FYI: I had to download the video for it to work properly.) 

Students watch the video up until the point where they talk about averaging the judges scores. At this point, I flip back to the presentation slide, Average Score to provide students with the opportunity to calculate the average score ahead of the video. Then, I push play and students discover if they are right! They love this! 

We continue on until the video discusses the average hours of practice. Again, I pause the video, display the presentation slide, Average # of Hours, students calculate the average number of hours the ice skaters practice, and then we watch the video to check answers. 

Averaging Roller Coaster Ride Times 

Students are now ready to apply their understanding of mean (average) to their own sets of data. I use a student's ride times to model and project this process: Teacher Model. I ask all students to first calculate this student's average ride time. In time, most students calculate an average ride time of 16.64. 

Next, I model how to graph each trial number using the attached graph (Teacher Model). I begin by creating a scale along the y-axis that counts by 1 second so that student can see a scale with one second intervals can fit data less than 15 seconds. I ask students: Will all of my data fit on this graph? Students point out that several trials extend above the 15 second mark (including 16.61 sec and 21.00 sec). We collectively decide to make the scale interval 2 seconds instead of 1 second. This is important as students will have to decide which scale will fit their data. For example, one student will have to create a scale interval greater than 2 seconds in order to fit her 40+ second ride times. 

After modeling how to graph each trial, I connect the dots and draw an "Average" line so that students can see the trials that were above and below average. 

Students complete the same steps on their own and then they move on to answering the questions below.

Student Work 

Here are a few examples of student data and graphs during this time:


Presentation Notecards

As students finish graphing and analyzing their data, I ask them to get ready for presentations by taking the following notes on a notecard: Failure Point, Improvement, Average Ride Time, and Explain why a trial was above or below the average ride time.

I want students to reflect on the process of engineering as well as their findings after analyzing their data. Being able to connect roller coaster prototypes with actual steps that engineers complete is the goal of this project, so it's important to circle back around to our starting point, the Engineering Method. 

Here are a few student examples: 



At the end of the day, students left their finished roller coasters on their desks. Tomorrow, students will present their roller coasters to our class and to several other classes in our school! Here are a few examples of finished roller coasters! 


Many students also added some special little details to make their roller coaster special, such as a roller coaster name, little cones at the of supports, signs, arrows, and flags: