Introduction to the Roller Coaster Problem Based Learning Unit

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Students will be able to ask questions about work, power, and energy in relation to a roller coaster project.

Big Idea

Students ask questions about a roller coaster project.

Physics Families

10 minutes

The goal of this lesson is for students to be introduced to the Roller Coaster Problem Based Learning Unit and to start asking questions about the different topics of the energy unit including work, power and different types of energy. This is the first lesson of the unit so it also acts as a hook to keep students interested throughout the unit. The problem based learning unit starts out with students asking questions about a topic or range of topics and learning about each topic in order to answer those questions so that they can build a roller coaster and complete a report about the different topics. This unit and this lesson focus on students developing knowledge about energy and energy conservation (HS-PS3-1 and HS-PS3-2). In this lesson students ask questions about different topics (SP1) and talk about them with their groups and share them with the class.

Since it is the beginning of the week, I begin class with a Physics Families activity as a way to maintain a positive classroom climate and to build my students' social and group skills. I have group members ask each other about their weekends and have them share something positive that happened over the weekend.

Today's Physics Family activity focuses on teamwork, emphasizing that working as a group is better than working alone. I have each group take a sheet of paper and draw a tic-tac-toe square so there are 9 boxes. Then I ask them to identify where each of the burgers in the picture below is from (I don't provide the answers). I give groups three minutes only. They can only talk to their group members; electronic devices are not allowed.

When everyone is done, I have them switch papers with another group; I provide answers and have groups grade each other's work. I collect each group's papers. Whichever group answered the most correct gets to put a star up on the Physics Family wall with their team name on it.

Introduction to Roller Coaster Project

15 minutes

After students return to their assigned seats, I pass out the Roller Coaster PBL Letter to students and ask one group member to read it aloud to the other members of the group. The letter discusses how students are part of a building team to create a roller coaster and report about its energy, work and power. After they have finished reading the letter, I ask them what the end goal of this unit is. We discuss how they will be designing and building roller coasters and then presenting work, power and energy calculations from the roller coaster as the end goal of this unit for several days. 

I show students the materials that they can use including foam pipe insulators that are cut in 1 meter pieces, marbles, meter sticks and masking tape. Then I give them a few minutes to gather some ideas of how they can make a roller coaster with these materials. I then ask the to draw some preliminary sketches on the back of their letter. They can refer back to these sketches throughout the unit until the roller coaster is completed.

Question Formulation Technique (QFT) about Energy

45 minutes

Most of this lesson is focused on an activity called QFT or Question Formulation Technique (created by the Right Question Institute) that teaches students to ask their own questions. I use this activity at the beginning of the unit because I want students to be asking questions about the different quantities that they have to determine and include in their report when they build their own roller coaster. I find that giving students the opportunity to take time to ask questions and really think and digest what the end goal of this unit is. The QFT process starts with a prompt for students, in this case the Roller Coaster Letter with several topic areas. Then students craft questions that they have about each topic area and I frame it as questions they need answered before they complete the report at the end of the unit. Students then go through those questions and identify close-ended and open-ended questions and try to have a variety of both. 

For this QFT I have students work with their groups instead of on their own because I want them to have support to be able to come up with rich open-ended questions. To start the QFT process, I have students take a piece of paper and fold it into thirds so that each topic requirement for the project has a section on their paper, using both sides of the paper. I have students title each section with a topic from the roller coaster report: work done on the entire roller coaster, power of the roller coaster down the first hill, kinetic energy at any point of the roller coaster, potential energy at any point of the roller coaster, speed at any point of the roller coaster, and project requirements. 

When students have their paper ready for each topic, I have them start with the work done on the roller coaster. Students work in their group to come up with at least 5 questions they have regarding the concept of work done on the coaster. Students write down as many questions as they can; I ask them not to filter out any questions even if they think they are not important. After about 3 minutes students repeat the process with power of the roller coaster down the first hill. We repeat the process with the remainder of the topics.

When students have all of their questions listed, I ask them what the difference between an open-ended question and a close-ended question is. Part of QFT is identifying open-ended questions as requiring an explanation that cannot be answered with “yes” or “no” or with one word. Close-ended questions, on the other hand, can be answered with “yes” or “no” or with one word. After we have clarified the difference between the open-ended and closed-ended questions as a class, students work with their group members to categorize each question as open-ended or close-ended.

When groups are done, I ask them if they have more of one type than the other of questions and most groups say they have more close-ended questions, so I ask them if they could change a few of their close-ended questions into open-ended questions so that they have a good mixture of types of questions. When they have their final questions, I have them look as a group and identify with a star the top three questions in each category. These are some samples of what the students came up with throughout the activity: QFT Student Work and QFT Student Work 2

From the three questions, I ask each group to chose the question they think is most important, put it on a post it note, and stick it on the appropriate poster. Below is the Power poster, the other posters are attached (Work DoneKinetic EnergyPotential EnergySpeedProject Requirements). When students are done posting their questions, I ask all students to walk to each poster and read the questions so they can see what other groups came up with. I use these posters to guide my lessons as we continue through the unit learning about each topic.