Roller Coaster Project
Posted 03/11/2019 09:05AM

In Physics I, students study the main themes of physics and engage in hands-on laboratory work to strengthen collaborative inquiry skills, as well as the formal presentation of research results. As in many classes at Whitfield, Physics I instructor Michelle Brown, seeks opportunities to practically apply the scientific concepts and theories the students are studying, in order to deepen understanding and introduce career paths. As an example, for the past several weeks, her students have been engaged in the Roller Coaster Project.

Working in groups of three or four, students act as engineers who are charged with submitting a new roller coaster design to the Six Flags theme park. Within the scope of set parameters, each roller coaster must demonstrate specific science concepts including gravity, friction, Newton’s Laws, momentum, kinetic and potential energy, and be safe for the public.

“The Roller Coaster Project gives students an opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of overarching physics concepts,” said faculty member Michelle Brown. “It’s a very intensive project that requires them to improve on their cooperative group lab skills and apply some of the scientific methods we have studied this year.”

Each coaster is required to have at least one loop, one turn, and while there is no height limit, each coaster must fit within the confines of the ‘construction area’ which measures 25” x 25”. Building supplies are provided and limited to the paper and tape, materials for lights, an electromagnetic brake, and an elastic potential energy launcher (a spring).

After the coaster is built, each group is given three ball bearings of different masses, representing cars of passengers. The goal is for the coasters to sustain multiple ‘rides’ and hold up as the number of passengers increases. The roller coaster must also bring the passengers safely to a stop. Students conduct a series of trials, analyze data, and evaluate and refine their designs.

Finally, each team will present the design to the Six Flags Board of Directors (faculty member Michelle Brown) and the potential riders (classmates). During each presentation, the team will work to impress with their knowledge of how factors, motion, and energy help their roller coaster work, why it is both safe and thrilling to ride.

Sean Boschert ’19, whose group includes Liam Dean ’19 and Seylor Switzer ’19, is enjoying the project. “Building the roller coaster has been fun and challenging,” said Boschert. “We are making final tweaks to our design and conducting the trials and it’s very cool to see the final product really start to come together.”

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