Designing a Roller Coaster

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SWBAT use a roller coaster simulation to design a roller coaster using potential and kinetic energy transfers.

Big Idea

Looking for a fun way to helps students understand how engineers use potential and kinetic energy transfers? This lesson simulates a roller coaster and helps students understand the physics behind the fun.


10 minutes

This lesson is a meaningful technology integration because we are using a simulation. One of my overarching goals for students is that they use the experiences and tools we interact with in my class to make connections, and apply unifying ideas, across science content. Understanding potential and kinetic energy sets the stage for authentic connections. Roller coaster simulations are an authentic application of science ideas and allow the students to understand the connection to engineering. 

There are lots of roller coaster simulations available for free. I like to use the Annenberg Learner simulation. Their Amusement Park Physics is a fun tool because the kids can easily access it, it is hilarious (especially when there is a crash), and it is visually appealing. The introductions by the cartoon scientist transitions into the articles later in this lesson. When I model the activity, the class listens to the introductions as a group so I am assured everyone has heard the ideas.

I allow the students the opportunity to "play" for 5-7 minutes. My reflection, "Let Kids Play" explains my reasons for this decision.

Students are allowed to work with a partner or by themselves. They use the simulation to get used to the visual aspects and test the different options.  At this point they do not record anything, they are getting acclimated to a new tool. This gives me the opportunity to trouble shoot technology issues. 

SP-2: Developing and Using Models: Develop or modify a model—based on evidence – to match what happens if a variable or component of a system is changed.)


15 minutes

After 5 or 7 minutes, I bring the students back to their seats. I want to support my students in learning about the engineering design process. I give them the data table on the Roller Coaster Simulations data table to record design trials.  I encourage them to use the data from the first trial to create the design for the second trial as they deliberately test designs. I ask them to try to get three working designs in order to have design choices for their final design. After all 10 trials have been completed, students draw their best design and label the sections with the greatest kinetic and potential energy. I intend to engage my students in science practices including Interpreting Data Results, Collecting Data (Student Samples) and Recording Data. They will use this design in a conclusion.

RST.6-8.3 Follow precisely a multistep procedure when carrying out experiments, taking measurements, or performing technical tasks.

MS-ETS1-2. Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.

MS-ETS1-3. Analyze data from tests to determine similarities and differences among several design solutions to identify the best characteristics of each that can be combined into a new solution to better meet the criteria for success.


20 minutes

After thinking about the design of a roller coaster, I like to Incorporate Science Articles to help students understand how engineers design roller coasters. My intent is to build a culture that encourages student engagement, curiosity, and a desire to understand the world through scientific exploration. Reading social science articles is a fantastic method for generating the culture of curiosity. 

The New York Times has been a great reference for articles. The article When Thrill Rides are Real Risks* covers some accidents in Theme Parks. The cartoon scientist suggested that roller coaster rides are safe. This article challenges that idea. My students read the article and complete a 3 x 3 Graphic Organizer about the safety of roller coasters. They must use citations and their own experiences with the simulation of designing a roller coaster. 

*Warning: This article my be upsetting to some students because it explains the deaths of a couple of people on the roller coasters. 

I have another article from the New York Times called Wood Takes a Thrilling Turn.  This article describes the scientific principles involved in making a roller coaster fun. They use this article to find quotes to determine how roller coasters are built safely. 

(RST.6-8.2 Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; provide an accurate summary of the text distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.)

(RST.6-8.4 Determine the meaning of symbols, key terms, and other domain- specific words and phrases as they are used in a specific scientific or technical context relevant to grades 6–8 texts and topics.)

(RST.6-8.8 Distinguish among facts, reasoned judgment based on research findings, and speculation in a text.)


10 minutes

The final project is a Write to Learn project. My strategy is to Incorporating Science Articles I want the students to compose and communicate a compelling argument using their data from the simulation and information from the articles. Students use a 3 x 3 Box to collect Evidence For, Evidence Against. In a five to seven sentence summary students defend the statement, "My roller coaster design is safe." They can draw and label a sketch to help convey their answer. I offer this option to support my students who understand the content but cannot communicate their thoughts with ease.

(RST.6-8.9 Compare and contrast the information gained from experiments, simulations, video, or multimedia sources with that gained from reading a text on the same topic.)