Wheeler-Hall Lesson Plan

First-Place Winner: TMA Excellence in Science Teaching Awards

Karen Wheeler-Hall
Integrated Physics and Chemistry Teacher
La Porte High School
La Porte, Texas

Building a Roller Coaster
Sample Lesson

Lesson Overview

This lesson is used to teach and reinforce the concepts of speed, velocity, momentum, acceleration, and Newton's Laws of Motion.  The students in my Integrated Physics and Chemistry (IPC) class will research and build a roller coaster that will allow a marble to roll along the track.  Once the roller coaster is built the students will calculate the speed, momentum, and acceleration of the marble as it rolls along the track. This project is usually completed in 10 class periods.  My students are in grades ten through twelve.  IPC is not a required course at La Porte High School.  Consequently many of the students that take my class are the "lower level" students.  These students are typically not interested in science.  This "hands on" project really grabs the interest of the students.  They have the opportunity to be creative and apply the information they get through research. Most of my students look forward to this project.  I have a number of students that sign up for IPC just so that they can participate in this project.  As a result of the interest that this project stimulates, I have a number of students that sign up for physics the following year.

Learning Objectives

Upon completion of this project the student will be able to:

  • Describe the law of conservation of energy.
  • Identify the conversion between potential and kinetic energy.
  • Calculate speed, momentum, and acceleration.
  • Investigate and describe the application of Newton's Laws of Motion.
  • Analyze the effect caused by changing force on the human body.
  • Construct a model of a roller coaster.

Materials Used

  • Craft sticks,
  • Plywood sheet,
  • Hot glue sticks,
  • Hot glue gun,
  • Marble,
  • Computer with Internet, and
  • Timer and photo gate.
Methods of Implementation

After discussions and class activities on speed, momentum, and forces, the students are put into groups of four or five.  The students then participate in "team building" activities.   The students then begin this project by watching videos that discuss amusement park physics.  This helps the students to understand the type of planning that is required to build a roller coaster.

Students go to the library to do Internet research on the following:

  • Roller coaster g-forces.
  • Law of conservation of energy.
  • Kinetic and potential energy as they apply to roller coasters.
  • How the forces of a roller coaster effect the human body.
  • How actual roller coasters are designed and built.
Building a Roller Coaster

Once the students have completed their research they begin to design the roller coaster. They may use any design they like as long as it fits on the plywood base. As they design their roller coaster they must also consider the standards for grading (listed below) and how the design they are using would impact a person riding on it.

The roller coaster is then constructed by the students using craft sticks and hot glue. These are the only materials the students may use. As the students are building, I monitor their progress and have discussions with them regarding their designs. Students must also prepare a story board that documents their research and the construction of the roller coaster.

When the roller coasters are completed, the students must then measure the roller coasters and begin calculating the speed, acceleration, and momentum of the marble as it rolls on the track. To do this, the students will use a timer and photogates that are attached to the roller coaster with clamps.

  • The roller coaster must have six drops, six turns, and a loop. The roller coaster must also have a realistic design that would not "injure" a rider.  Points are deducted for fewer drops, turns, or no loop.  I also deduct points if the roller coaster is not realistic.
  • The roller coasters are then displayed at a district wide open house.  At that time, the roller coasters are judged by engineers from the petrochemical and space industry.  The students must be able to discuss their roller coasters and their story boards with the engineers.  The winning team receives free passes to Astroworld.

Students can research and report on how the feeling of zero gravity that is achieved on some roller coasters compares to the feeling of zero gravity on the KC 135 or the Space Shuttle.

Students can research and report on articles related to amusement park rides and injuries/deaths that may have occurred while riding a ride (not due to accidents).  Is there proof that rides can be a cause of brain injury or death?

Description of What Makes Lesson Effective

This lesson is very successful for a number of reasons.  The biggest reason is that the students are actively engaged in the activity.  Instead of listening to me lecture or doing worksheets, they are doing their own research and completing a project that is fun and exciting. Teenagers love amusement parks and this project really keeps them interested.  The students are able to be creative and work in a group.  The fact that their work is exhibited and judged at a district wide event is a great motivator for my students as well.

Return to  TMA Excellence in Science Teaching Awards - Home page

Last Updated On

September 09, 2010