How can I build a rollercoaster?

Grade
4 5 6
Format

Try your hand at building a “super coaster” using materials around your home.
How can I build a rollercoaster?
how-can-i-build-a-roller-coaster

What You Need

  • Paper
  • Pen or Pencil
  • Thin card stock
  • Craft sticks
  • Masking tape
  • Straws
  • Sponge
  • Cups (plastic, paper or styrofoam)
  • Marble
  • Plasticine
  • Any other found materials considered necessary by the engineer

What To Do

  1. You are an engineer in a company that builds rollercoasters and other rides for amusement parks. Your task is to design and build a "Super Coaster". The coaster must have at least one vertical loop and the passenger car (represented by the marble) must complete the circuit to a complete and safe stop.
  2. To begin, your design should be first created on paper.
  3. Build and test your coaster.
How can I build a rollercoaster?

Suggestions:

  • Choose easy-to-use construction materials
  • For support, anchor the base of the coaster with Plasticine (or an alternative)
  • Keep the coaster's track as smooth as possible
  • Test the track frequently in small portions, as sections are added, to ensure success
  • You can use books to build and support hills and ramps

What’s happening?

The first hill in a rollercoaster is always the biggest. Starting the rollercoaster on top of a high place allows the coaster to gain a lot of gravitational potential energy. That is, the amount of work an object will be able to do with the energy it gets from falling. Luckily, the coaster will be "falling" on some tracks! The energy a coaster builds on the first hill should be enough to take it through the rest of the track.

Gravity pulls the coaster down the tracks, then the coaster continues to accelerate until it reaches the bottom. There, the potential energy becomes kinetic energy, which is the energy of motion. The energy is changing from stored energy (potential) to motion energy (kinetic). The more potential energy (the higher the hill is), the more kinetic energy there is – and the faster the coaster will go!

Once in motion, the rollercoaster will remain in motion until another force acts on it. This principle is known as Newton's First Law of physics, which states that an object at rest stays at rest until a force acts on it (something pushes or pulls it) and that an object in motion stays in motion unless a force acts on it (something slows or stops it).

Inertia is a word that physicists use to describe the tendency of an object to stay in motion. A rollercoaster is being acted on by the forces of friction and air resistance, both of which are slowing the coaster down. This means that a rollercoaster will eventually stop, though often brakes are used as well.

Another force is acting on the rollercoaster to get it around the loop. It is called centripetal force, which is the force that pushes or pulls an object inward and forces it on a circular path. If the centripetal force exceeds the force of gravity, the coaster will lift around the loop. If not, the coaster would just roll back to the beginning of the loop or fall off! Did your marble do this the first time? Once the coaster gets moving around the loop, the marble will continue to travel along the inside of the loop because of its inertia.

What’s happening?

The first hill in a rollercoaster is always the biggest. Starting the rollercoaster on top of a high place allows the coaster to gain a lot of gravitational potential energy. That is, the amount of work an object will be able to do with the energy it gets from falling. Luckily, the coaster will be "falling" on some tracks! The energy a coaster builds on the first hill should be enough to take it through the rest of the track.

Gravity pulls the coaster down the tracks, then the coaster continues to accelerate until it reaches the bottom. There, the potential energy becomes kinetic energy, which is the energy of motion. The energy is changing from stored energy (potential) to motion energy (kinetic). The more potential energy (the higher the hill is), the more kinetic energy there is – and the faster the coaster will go!

Once in motion, the rollercoaster will remain in motion until another force acts on it. This principle is known as Newton's First Law of physics, which states that an object at rest stays at rest until a force acts on it (something pushes or pulls it) and that an object in motion stays in motion unless a force acts on it (something slows or stops it).

Inertia is a word that physicists use to describe the tendency of an object to stay in motion. A rollercoaster is being acted on by the forces of friction and air resistance, both of which are slowing the coaster down. This means that a rollercoaster will eventually stop, though often brakes are used as well.

Another force is acting on the rollercoaster to get it around the loop. It is called centripetal force, which is the force that pushes or pulls an object inward and forces it on a circular path. If the centripetal force exceeds the force of gravity, the coaster will lift around the loop. If not, the coaster would just roll back to the beginning of the loop or fall off! Did your marble do this the first time? Once the coaster gets moving around the loop, the marble will continue to travel along the inside of the loop because of its inertia.

Why does it matter?

An engineer who is designing a rollercoaster or any other amusement park ride must consider all of the forces at work in order to ensure the ride is both thrilling and safe for the public.

Why does it matter?

An engineer who is designing a rollercoaster or any other amusement park ride must consider all of the forces at work in order to ensure the ride is both thrilling and safe for the public.

Investigate further

  • Do the activity with some friends. Work in two separate teams and aim to get the highest number of points: 3 points for a U-Turn, 5 points for each loop your coaster (marble) successfully makes, and 1 point for every time you make the coaster (marble) go up a hill.
  • Try to get the marble to fly off the end of your coaster and land in a cup. Does it get it every time?

For more information on this topic check out these Let's Talk Science resources:

  • Design & Build a Marble Run (Lessons) - Students will work collaboratively to design and build a marble run that meets specific criteria.
  • Design and Build a Tall Tower (Lessons) - Design and build the tallest free-standing tower possible, with the materials provided, and test it to demonstrate if it meets the predetermined construction criteria.

Investigate further

  • Do the activity with some friends. Work in two separate teams and aim to get the highest number of points: 3 points for a U-Turn, 5 points for each loop your coaster (marble) successfully makes, and 1 point for every time you make the coaster (marble) go up a hill.
  • Try to get the marble to fly off the end of your coaster and land in a cup. Does it get it every time?

For more information on this topic check out these Let's Talk Science resources:

  • Design & Build a Marble Run (Lessons) - Students will work collaboratively to design and build a marble run that meets specific criteria.
  • Design and Build a Tall Tower (Lessons) - Design and build the tallest free-standing tower possible, with the materials provided, and test it to demonstrate if it meets the predetermined construction criteria.

Discovery