Marble Roller Coaster Lab

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As an end of unit project, students will craft a marble roller coaster to demonstrate the conservation of energy.

Big Idea

Roller coasters are useful models for studying the conservation of energy.


This lesson addresses the HS-SP3-3 standard as a way to create a roller coaster model that converts potential energy into kinetic energy. Students research concepts related to roller coaster design using the NGSS Practices of Planning and Carrying out Investigations (SP3) and Obtaining and Communicating Information (SP8) that illustrate key factors that affect the contact time between the coaster (in this case the marble) and the track in a manner that yields the longest, safest ride. At this point in the semester, students have constructed explanations of energy, used EDpuzzles, simulations, and Webquests to study kinetic energy and potential energy as well as used roller coasters as a model.

Students begin with a free write routine on the connections between physics and roller coasters. After students complete the free write, they watch a set of video tutorials and work in small teams to create prototypes for a roller coaster design challenge. To wrap-up, students craft a headline that encapsulates the important portions of today's lesson. I assess student understanding of the connection between physics and roller coaster design throughout the lesson using informal check-ins and 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 well-crafted design. Within this lesson, I ask students to leverage skills like rapid prototyping and applying mathematical models to a system. This is a long-term project, which culminates in a final prototype at the end of 3.5 weeks. I give students feedback about how to improve their prototypes using comments on their Edmodo wall.


5 minutes

This portion of the lesson begins with a routine where students write the objective and an additional piece of information 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 roller coasters are useful models for studying the conservation of energy. The objective of the bell-ringer is to give students a clear understanding of the focus of today's lesson. Also, I choose to incorporate video tutorials because I want students to learn that constructing prototypes using technology is a useful skill for studying and practicing physics. I follow this bell ringer with a Free Write.

Free Write: Physics and Roller Coasters

15 minutes

At the beginning of this section of the lesson, I ask students to complete a Free Write on the connection between physics and roller coasters. I project this slide on the interactive whiteboard at the front of the room. I ask students to spend ten minutes writing an answer to the prompt, "When I hear the phrase roller coasters, I think...", in their notebooks.  

After ten minutes pass, I spend the next five minutes soliciting responses from students from the entire class. Some student responses include, "I think of going really fast really quickly", and " I think that someone spent a lot of time making them safe." Later in this lesson, I ask students to build a model roller coaster that will become a part of the final project for this unit. 

Crafting A Marble Roller Coaster

50 minutes

After we discuss the connections between physics and roller coasters, I distribute Chromebooks and ask students to login to Edmodo and check out the tutorials on paper roller-coasters that I post on our class wall. Here are the tutorials that I post on our class Edmodo wall.


During this portion of the lesson, I project this slide on the interactive whiteboard at the front of the room. I ask students to spend about 45 minutes working in small groups to craft a marble roller coaster. Students use their models to demonstrate the conservation of energy by the end of this unit.

Students teams watch the tutorials with their team mates (teams of 2-4 of their choice, although most students work with students from their tables). Students first create a sketch with dimensions and use this sketch to create roller coaster elements. We call the sketch a template and the incomplete roller coaster a prototype. Students test each roller coaster element with a marble. During today's lesson students must create at least one prototype and one roller coaster element that teams duplicate to rapidly build their coasters according to an agreed upon sketch. Students keep repeating this process until they have a complete roller coaster prototype and the templates that they used to create it.

This is a long-term project which takes ~3.5 weeks to complete and involves independent work outside of class. I provide materials and time after school on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons for students to work with their teams on their projects. During the final week of this project, I assess students on:

  • A complete set of templates and instructions on how to craft their final roller coaster
  • Their final roller coaster prototype
  • Time trials as a class to see which roller coaster design yields the safest yet thrilling ride

Click here to see an example of student work.

Closure Activity: Headlines

10 minutes

The closure activity this section asks students to write down ideas about energy and roller coasters in their notebooks using a Headlines Routine. The headlines routine asks students to create a headline that captures key information that should be remembered about a particular lesson or topic. Student responses include: "Potential Energy helps with rollercoaster design", "I can predict the final speed of my marble using kinetic energy", and "Building my own template is easy to do after using the video tutorials". 

To wrap up this section of the lesson, I ask students to look at the upcoming exhibition due dates that I post on the class Edmodo wall:

  • Week 1: Prototype of 1 roller coaster element & corresponding template,
  • Week 2: Prototype of 3 roller coaster elements & corresponding templates, account of amount of card stock used during construction
  • Week 3: Calculations of kinetic and potential energies of three different locations on final roller coaster prototype, final roller coaster prototype and corresponding template with tutorial
  • Week 4: Time trials, paper, visual presentation showing that energy is conserved using roller coaster prototype

I also ask students to share images of their prototypes with me from today's lesson by midnight to receive credit for improving their physical models.