Physics of Roller Coasters

TeachEngineering: author Scott Liddle
Type Category
Instructional Materials Assessment Materials
Lesson/Lesson Plan , Problem Set , Answer Key , Rubric , Activity
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be "fully aligned," the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.



This activity from the TeachEngineering Digital Library engages students in the engineering design process as they build physical models of roller coasters using foam pipe insulation and marbles.  The lesson features a host of instructional supports:  scripted introduction, discussion questions, front-loaded vocabularies, video showing the design in action, formative assessment, background information, scoring rubric, and specifications worksheet. The lesson is especially robust because it guides students to deeper understanding of how engineers must know fundamental physics before they can design anything. The following Physical Science content is specifically addressed in this activity:

  • Kinetic and potential energy

  • Conservation of Energy in terms of total energy in a system

  • Transfer of kinetic energy to thermal energy in the surrounding environment (through friction)

  • Gravitational Potential Energy (GPE)

Allow a minimum of two class periods; allow 3 periods if students will be evaluating each others’ designs.


Intended Audience

Educator and learner
Educational Level
  • Middle School
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

MS-ETS1-4 Develop a model to generate data for iterative testing and modification of a proposed object, tool, or process such that an optimal design can be achieved.

Clarification Statement: none

Assessment Boundary: none

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
This activity presents a good opportunity to help learners understand that there are different kinds of models. In this lesson, they will be developing a physical model. Other types of models include simulations, computational models, and computer models that allow you to build a virtual system. All types of models are useful to scientists and engineers. To help students fully appreciate the discipline of engineering, teachers may want to have a class discussion about engineering design. Here’s a link to the TeachEngineering web page devoted to the design process:

MS-PS3-5 Construct, use, and present arguments to support the claim that when the kinetic energy of an object changes, energy is transferred to or from the object.

Clarification Statement: Examples of empirical evidence used in arguments could include an inventory or other representation of the energy before and after the transfer in the form of temperature changes or motion of object.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include calculations of energy.

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this performance expectation, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
To fully integrate this PE, teachers will need to be sure students understand how to gauge changing kinetic energy in their roller coaster model. In the initial position, KE is zero because the marble isn’t moving. But the marble has “stored energy” (potential energy) because of its height above the ground.  There are many types of potential energy (PE). In this system, the PE type is Gravitational Potential Energy, resulting from the pull of gravity on all objects within Earth's gravitational field.  Students may need reminders that whenever kinetic energy changes, energy is transferred or transformed but the energy doesn’t just disappear. To help illustrate changing kinetic/potential energy in their roller coaster design, teachers might show students the PhET simulation “Energy Skate Park Basics” -- It shows a skateboarder on a ramp or half-pipe, with motion dependent only on gravity (with or without friction). Energy Bar Graphs are displayed in real time that show changing KE and PE alongside Total Energy. The graphs show very clearly that total energy in the system is always conserved. Add “Friction” to the system and watch as kinetic energy is converted to thermal energy.  After engaging with the simulation, teachers can help students focus on the KE of the marble at various points in the roller coaster run. Teachers could introduce a few questions that specifically address this Performance Expectation, for example: 1) Based on your diagram of your roller coaster, explain what is happening to the potential energy as the car starts descending down the first hill.   2) Which type of marble is slowed down the most by friction? 3) What energy conversion happens when a roller coaster car encounters friction? 4) You often hear that “energy is lost” to heat in systems where friction occurs. Explain why this is not accurate. What happened to the energy?

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
Remind students that what they;re doing is developing a physical model of a system they see in real life. You may want to ask them to think about ways their models are similar and different from real roller coasters. To integrate mathematics, teachers may want to create data tables to record data about each trial run for each type of marble used: glass, wooden, and steel.  To determine velocity, students could measure the length of the track and use a stopwatch to record the time it takes each marble to complete the run.  Velocity can then be calculated with this simple equation:  v  =  d/t   where v is velocity, d is distance, and t is time.  Another option could be to allow the marble to fly off the end of the roller coaster and measure the distance from end of the coaster to the landing point on the ground. This allows students to calculate speed at the bottom of the roller coaster system and relate it to kinetic energy.  (The marble that traveled the greatest distance has the greatest kinetic energy at the bottom.)

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
The criteria and constraints are spelled out in the document “Roller Coaster Specifications.” Performing this lesson requires certain prerequisite knowledge: basic understanding of gravity and friction as forces that act on objects; some familiarity with kinetic and potential energy; the meaning of velocity, acceleration, and position. The lesson is more appropriate for learners in Grades 7-8; not as appropriate for Grade 6 without significant content preparation and scaffolding. Be sure to allow plenty of time for peer brainstorming, discussion, evaluation of the design effectiveness, and redesign to optimize the solution.  It will also be important to allow time for students to collaborate about design, redesign, and evaluation of competing designs.  This may take 3 full class periods.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
Be sure students do multiple test runs on each marble and record their data carefully. Allow ample time for peer discussion about ways to revise the design to create a more thrilling or safer ride, plus at least 30 minutes to engage in redesign to optimize a solution.

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
Please see Tips/Comments in the Performance Expectation box above. Middle school students often hold firmly entrenched misconceptions about energy. According to the 2017 Science Assessment by the American Association for the Advancement of Science Assessment, almost two thirds of children in Grades 6-8 believe (incorrectly) that energy can be transformed into a force.  Here’s a link:   The difference between energy and forces is often poorly understood at this age, requiring direct teacher intervention and carefully planned lessons.  This lesson provides a good opportunity for students to analyze each step of an object’s (marble roller coaster car’s) motion to determine the forces acting on it and the energy transformations that happen as the marble starts down the track and rolls to the finish. (Potential energy changes to kinetic energy as the marble rolls down the hill; kinetic energy changes to potential as the car goes back up a hill; and kinetic energy is converted to thermal energy by the force of friction acting on the marble.)

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
This CCC is addressed, yet to integrate it even more thoroughly teachers might ask learning groups to do a brief presentation explaining how the different marble materials (glass, wood, steel) affected the speed of the run.  You could also pose the question, “Can you think of a way to reduce friction so the marbles could go faster? Explain your reasoning.”

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: Students use all 3 Dimensions of the NGSS to design solutions. Middle School Engineering Design PE and DCI are explicitly addressed in this learning module, with the Practice “Designing Solutions” integrated seamlessly as students brainstorm, construct, test, and revise an engineering solution that meets specific criteria (the marbles must successfully complete the roller coaster track and roll safely into a paper cup). Extra points are awarded for incorporating a loop, corkscrew, or 180-degree turn. The CCC “Structure and Function” is integrated as students consider the effects of different marble materials on the experimental outcomes, but its integration is less obvious.  The resource also addresses a PE and DCI within Middle School Physical Science-Conservation of Energy.

  • Instructional Supports: This is possibly the greatest strength of the “Physics of Roller Coasters” learning module -- the instructional supports are almost too numerous to list. They include: scripted introduction, background information for teachers, link to an interactive roller coaster model, link to the Engineering Design Process web page within TeachEngineering, front-loaded vocabularies, a YouTube video showing the design in action, troubleshooting tips, ideas for formative assessment, a “Roller Coaster Specifications Worksheet”, Post-Activity Assessment ideas. The lesson builds on the Upper Elementary Engineering Design storyline and explicitly identifies prior student learning required to understand and complete the activity. It also weaves in suggestions for how the instruction can connect to students’ lives (i.e., “What roller coasters do you most like riding?”, “What’s most important to you -- thrill or safety?” "Which team's design reminds you of a roller coaster you love?") The resource does not provide guidance in differentiated instruction or provide extra support for struggling learners or students with disabilities.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: The resource contains a Pre-Lesson Assessment, plus post-lesson assessment suggestions. Formative assessment ideas are embedded throughout the lessons, with scripted introductory questions provided to elicit prior understanding. Students will be demonstrating evidence of three-dimensional learning in the following ways:   1) Building a design that meets specific criteria (PE MS-ETS1-4) 2) Testing and modifying a design to improve it (DCI MS-ETS1.B.i) 3) Constructing a diagram to show changing kinetic and potential energy in their roller coaster design (PE MS-PS3-5) 4) Recording and analyzing data to calculate how different materials performed on the roller coaster track (CCC-Structure & Function) 5) Developing a physical model to describe phenomena (Science & Engineering Practice - Developing and Using Models) Each of these components can be assessed in numerous ways. The lesson provides a Scoring Rubric, but it lacks a detailed Data Table for student use in determining velocity and g-forces.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: - none -