Roller Coaster Design - Day 1

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Students design their own roller coasters, calculate potential energy and apply conservation of energy to calculate the velocities at key points of the ride.

Big Idea

For a closed system energy is conserved, changing from one form of energy to other forms of energy.


Students design their own roller coaster as they combine the many concepts in energy they learned in previous lesson such as: energy conservation in Skate Park Energy, applications of kinetic and potential energy in Skate Parker Energy Revisited and work and power in Work, Power and You. They must calculate the total energy of the roller coaster, determine the velocity at various points and make sure that the coaster makes it around at least one circular loop.

The only way to accomplish this task is to apply NGSS engineering practice HS-ETS1-2: Design a solution to a complex real-world problem by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable problems that can be solved through engineering. As they work through their designs, students use Science Practice 1: Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering) and Science Practice 5: Using mathematics and computational thinking throughout the process. They also apply application of CCSS Math Practice 1: Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them and Math Practice 4: Model with mathematics. 

To ensure their designs are safe, students show that this is the case with calculations and conceptual understanding, which involves NGSS Science Practice 7: Engaging in argument from evidence.  All of this is in the context of NGSS performance standard HS-PS3-3: Design, build, and refine a device that works within given constraints to convert one form of energy into another form of energy.

Roller Coaster Design Challenge Presented

5 minutes

In this activity my students take knowledge that they have collected about conservation of energy, kinetic energy, potential energy, work and power and apply it something that they imagine and create on paper. They are to design their very own roller coaster. 

For this activity, I allow students to choose their partners.I ask hat they work in groups of 2. This tends to make the groups homogeneous, as students of similar skill level tend to be friends. Nonetheless, I find it beneficial to the design process to have students who are friends work together on this task, as it takes three full periods to complete. It helps with the collaboration and sharing of ideas if students are comfortable with each other. 

After students are in their groups, I hand out the roller coaster design rubric, one per group. I instruct students to use two pieces of paper for their roller coaster and to carefully read through the rubric. I don't give much more instruction than this, as the rubric includes all of the required information as to how the project is graded.

Students Design and Create Their Roller Coasters

45 minutes

Students spend the remaining class time on creating their roller coaster. I encourage the groups to think of a theme first and determine how their roller coaster gets its energy. Then I suggest that they draw their coaster track and establish a scale.

Once they have the scale, they can measure the heights at all of the important spots where the roller coaster needs to have data calculations, such as: the highest point, the fastest point, where the coaster goes upside down, etc. The height is used to calculate the potential energy; subtracting that value from the total energy allows students to calculate the kinetic energy, which is then to calculate the velocity. 

Students do have to make up some numbers such as the mass of the coaster and the time it takes the coaster to go up the first hill. As long as they use reasonable numbers, they receive full credit.

This is a fun activity in which students engage their full effort. They love to be creative and they have the tools needed from previous lessons to complete this task. Student groups spend half the time on their theme and design ideas. After they have come up with a compelling idea, they move onto the calculation portion of the activity. While students work on this activity, I circle the classroom to answer question and congratulate groups on their clever ideas. Things continue this way until the period ends.