Roller Coaster Simulation Lab

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Students will demonstrate and apply their knowledge of the concept of energy conservation by using mathematical reasoning to predict and calculate the kinetic and potential energy of a roller coaster.

Big Idea

Simulations are useful ways to model the conservation of energy in a system.


This lesson addresses the HS-PS3-1 standard as a way to effectively compose a logical understanding of the conservation of energy in the context of a roller coaster in order to determine its final velocity. Students research concepts related to energy transfer using the NGSS Practices of Developing and Using Models (SP2) and Using Mathematical and Computational Thinking (SP5). Students begin by creating a mind map that illustrates the connections between physics concepts and energy. Students use a simulation and a set of handouts to carry out an investigation of the physics of roller coasters.During the closure activity at the end of this lesson, I ask students to construct a headline about the most important and challenging parts of today's lesson. 

I assess student understanding throughout the lesson using informal check-ins, and will assess each student's work at the end of the school day. I want students to learn to integrate information from various points of this course into a coherent summary on the nature of Energy Transfer Mechanisms including assertions that can be made because energy is conserved within a closed system. This relates to (SP6) because students have to leverage skills like data collection and analysis to construct an explanation of energy changes within a system.  One goal of this lesson is to help students learn that carrying out investigations using simulations is an effective way to gather scientific information about the concept of "Energy Conservation".


10 minutes

This portion of the lesson begins with a routine where students write the objective and additional piece of information in their notebooks as soon as they enter the classroom. I project a slide with the date, the objective and an additional prompt  on the interactive whiteboard with a red label that says "COPY THIS" in the top left-hand corner. Sometimes the additional prompt is a BIG IDEA for the lesson or the Quote of the Day or a Quick Fact from current events that is related to the lesson. The red label helps my students easily interact with the information as soon as they enter the room and avoids losing transition time as students enter the classroom.

Today's additional piece of information is a Big Idea which states that simulations are useful ways to model the conservation of energy in a system. The objective of the bell-ringer is to give students a clear understanding of the focus of today's lesson.  I choose this set of simulation activities because I want students to learn that simulations are useful ways to study closed systems. 

EDpuzzle: Roller Coasters and Physics

15 minutes

Within this lesson, I include a set of notes in the form of an Edpuzzle that I project at the interactive whiteboard at the front of the room. This part of the lesson focuses on the connection between roller coasters and physics. For the first ten minutes, I play the Edpuzzle at the front of the room for the entire class and pause at the pause points that have I embedded as green question marks in the video.

During the first ten minutes, students take notes  and write their answers to the pause points in their notebooks. I ask students if they have any questions or concerns about the methods discussed in the video. We have a whole class discussion for 2-4 minutes. Some students ask, "Do most roller coasters use lifts to start the rides or do some rides use engines?" and "How does the physics change for different amusement park rides?". During the last minute of this section of the lesson, I post the EDpuzzle video on our class Edmodo wall so that students can watch, pause and replay the video outside of class. During the next section, students are given a related pre-lab assignment to complete individually.

Roller Coaster Pre-Lab

10 minutes

In this section of the lesson, I ask student pairs to describe what happens at the beginning of a roller coaster ride, predict whether a roller coaster cart ever gets higher than its initial height and use a simulation that models the physics behind roller coaster motion.  I distribute Chromebooks for students pairs to start using the simulation. I include a set of instructions on how to access the simulation for today's lesson on the class Edmodo wall. After students sign-up for access to the simulation, I project an overview of the Pre-lab activity on the interactive whiteboard at the front of the room. This part of the lesson asks students to identify whether a roller coaster's height is maximum at the first hill or not.  

I distribute the first sheet of the student exploration sheets found here for students to complete. Students spend one to two minutes completing the first set of questions and spend a few minutes learning how the simulation works using Chromebooks. Click here to see an example of student work. At the end of this section, I collect student pre-lab activities to grade and return to students later in the week. 

Roller Coaster Simulations

30 minutes

Within this section of the lesson, student pairs manipulate mass, hill height, and the coefficient of friction of the roller coaster & track. First I distribute the remainder of the student exploration sheets found here. Then I ask students to spend the first five minutes choosing one of three options on how I assess them during this section of the lesson.

The three options include: 

    • Plains (Activity A)
    • Uphill (Activities A & B)
    • Mountain Top (Activities A, B & C)

In each activity, a toy car moves along a roller coaster track where an egg is at the end of the track. Students may change the mass of the car, the coefficient of friction between the car and the track, and the height of each hill. If the car breaks the egg, the roller coaster is considered unsafe. Activity A asks students to use a simulation to determine which factors affect the velocity of a toy car during moving along a roller coaster track. During Activity B, students use a more massive toy car to investigate how energy is transferred from one form to another as a roller coaster moves and determine the maximum velocity of the toy car can attain without breaking the egg. During Activity C, students compare the momentum and kinetic energy of each and determine the minimum kinetic energy each toy car requires to break the egg. 

The majority of students choose the uphill and mountain top options. All students use the simulation to investigate the factors that determine the velocity of a roller coaster. I choose this set of activities because I want students to learn that using simulations is an essential skill for learning physics content. I like the immediate feedback that simulations provide. I distribute Chromebooks for student pairs to use during this section of the lesson. Students spend 20 minutes working individually carrying out the investigations of their choice. After 20 minutes pass, I ask students to spend the remaining time discussing their analysis and conclusions with their elbow partners. Most students who choose the plains level have individualized learning plans that give them double the time to process physics content. Click here for an example of student work. 


10 minutes

I project an Exit Slip for students to spend the next five minutes completing on the interactive whiteboard at the front of the room. Some student responses include: "Breaking the egg happens when kinetic energy is 0.25 J or higher.", "Because energy is conserved we can find the velocity of the vehicles in the simulation," and "It is easy to predict when the egg will break if you know the total height lost."

Then, I remind students that our first set of roller coaster time trials will happen on Friday. Student groups are competing on who can build the safest and slowest paper marble roller coaster. I am holding time trials for three consecutive Fridays to give students the opportunity to modify their prototypes before our roller coaster exhibition at the end of the unit.