Roller coasters engage kids in exploration of potential and kinetic energy. With some plastic tubing and BBs, they can use the engineering design process to build, test, and refine. What’s more? The project gives them a firm foundation in transfer of energy.
Ms. Sneed Uses Roller Coasters to Teach Energy Transfer
Our favorite fourth grade teacher, Ms. Sneed, sat at the side table with her teaching partner. “Let’s plan more physical science activities,” she said. Intently, she stared at science standard NGSS 4-PS3-4:
Apply scientific ideas to design, test, and refine a device that converts energy from one form to another.
Then she tapped her pencil and stared into space. “Hmm, this standard indicates that we should use the engineering design process. In the past,” she said, “we used the sound STEM activity for this standard. However, this reminds me of a roller coaster project we used to do.”
“Sounds interesting,” Mr. Frank replied. “Please tell me more.”
“Kids create roller coasters with plastic tubing. Then they stick a BB into the tube. And away it goes!”
As they talked, Ms. Sneed opened her laptop, headed to Teachers pay Teachers, and searched. “Here we go! A complete roller coaster energy project!”
Mr. Frank leaned in. Then both teachers looked through the preview.
Learning About Forms of Energy
“First,” Ms. Sneed said, “kids review forms of potential and kinetic energy with these posters. You can see that roller coasters are used to illustrate motion.”
Exploring Potential and Kinetic Energy with a Section of Roller Coasters
“Second, they explore with a short section of plastic tubing.”
“Ahh,” said Mr. Frank, “they don’t just jump right into entire roller coasters. I like that.”
“Right. By bending the tube, kids can clearly see how potential energy converts to kinetic energy. It’s an early introduction to conservation of energy.”
“Additionally, I see that they hold the beginning end at the same height, lower, and higher. This will help them with their coaster design.”
Designing and Testing
Ms. Sneed scrolled to the next page. “Next they plan and test roller coasters with one hill and one loop. For each prototype, they must measure the heights of the beginning, hill, and loop.”
“That will help them understand how they need to revise,” Mr. Frank said. “I’m sold. Let’s start this set of activities on Monday!”
Fourth Graders Design Roller Coasters
The following week, Mr. Frank and Ms. Sneed were ready to go. First, they reviewed forms of energy with their classes. Second, students explored with short sections of tubing. Finally, they were ready for the full engineering design process.
Planning, Building, and Testing Prototypes
After Ms. Sneed’s students designed their first roller coaster, she distributed the materials. Each group received two meters of plastic tubing, a small cup filled with BBs, and a roll of masking tape.
“Okay,” the teacher said, “you can work anywhere in the room and use whatever you need. For example, you might want a stack of books for height. However, anything you move must be put back – by you. Go!”
Some groups headed to the cabinets and taped their tubing directly on it. Others built on the floor.
As Ms. Sneed circulated, she heard lots of great engineering talk.
“In this design, we didn’t start high enough,” one student said. “Therefore, the potential energy didn’t give our BB enough kinetic energy to make it over the hill. In our next prototype, we need to start higher.”
Another group debated heights of their hill and loop. “If you want the hill to be lower than the loop,” said another student, “it has to come after it. If the lower hill comes first, the BB won’t have it enough energy to complete the loop.”
Testing and Revising
After each trial, kids revised and tried again. Whenever a group’s BB made it through the entire course, squeals of delight could be heard. “Ms. Sneed! Ms. Sneed! Come over and see how this roller coaster design works!”
As usual, a wide smile broke out on Ms. Sneed’s face. Yes, this was what teaching was meant to be.
Explaining Energy Transfer in Roller Coasters
When everything was put away, Ms. Sneed was ready for some debriefing. “Okay guys, you need to explain what you learned.” She distributed the culminating worksheet, and they got down to work.
Enjoy Teaching Energy Transfer
As her students worked, Ms. Sneed circulated around the classroom and reflected on the roller coaster activity. A small teacher smile crept across her face. “Nothing’s better than integrating science and engineering design,” she said to herself.