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STEM ready

The Energy Behind Roller Coaster Ride

Driving or Multi-dimensional Question:

How do roller coasters work, and how are forces and energy transfer involved?
Students will explore the science of roller coasters. How is the law of conservation of energy used for enjoyment in theme parks, while keeping the thrill seekers safe?

Unit Summary:

The concept of energy transfer in and out of systems can be predicted qualitatively and quantitatively. Students should be able to understand the conservation of energy, how energy is stored and transferred, the relationship between forces and how they are related to energy and how it is used in the making of rollercoasters. This lesson incorporates evaluations of energy transfers and conservation using online simulations. Then students will use what they have learned to build and test a prototype. Students will conduct investigations and analyze data to evaluate their model and compare it to those of their peers.

Hook Event:

Roller Coaster Ride –  Watch the video of Dollywood’s Wild Eagle Ride

Beginning Questions:
What factors make a roller coaster ride so exciting?
Where does the energy for making the roller coaster “go” come from?

Culminating Event:

Students will design, build and test a roller coaster design of their choosing, factoring in safety of the riders (marbles, steel ball bearings, plastic balls). Students will decide the parameters to be tested through class consensus before testing begins. Students will test their own design and one other group’s from the class. Class data will be recorded and analyzed. Each group will design a multimedia presentation to share with the class, to include a brief discussion of a roller coaster engineering career.


Science Standards:

HS-PS3-3. Design, build, and refine a device that works within given constraints to convert one form of energy into another form of energy.

HS-PS3-1. Create a computational model to calculate the change in the energy of one component in a system when the change in energy of the other component(s) and energy flows in and out of the system are known.

PHYS.PS2.1 Investigate and evaluate the graphical and mathematical relationship (using either manual graphing or computers) of one-dimensional kinematic parameters (distance, displacement, speed, velocity, acceleration) with respect to an object’s position, direction of motion, and time.

PHYS.PS2.2 Algebraically solve problems involving constant velocity and constant acceleration in one-dimension.

PHYS.PS3.3 Use the principle of energy conservation and mathematical representations to quantify the change in energy of one component of a system when the energy that flows in and out of the system and the change in energy of the other components is known.

PHYS.PS3.1 Identify and calculate different types of energy and their transformations (thermal, kinetic, potential, including magnetic and electrical potential energies) from one form to another in a system.

Math Standards:

MP.2 Reason abstractly and quantitatively. (HS -PS3-1),(HS-PS3-2),(HS-PS3-3),(HS-PS3-4),(HS-PS3-5)
MP.4 Model with mathematics. (HS -PS3-1),(HS-PS3-2),(HS-PS3-3),(HS-PS3-4),(HS-PS3-5)
HSN-Q.A .1 Use units as a way to understand problems and to guide the solution of multi-step problems; choose and interpret units consistently in formulas; choose and interpret the scale and the origin in graphs and data display s. (HS-PS3-1),(HS-PS3-3)
HSN-Q.A .2 Define appropriate quantities for the purpose of descriptive modeling. (HS-PS3-1),(HS-PS3-3)

ELA and Other Standards:

WHST .9-12.7 Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating an understanding of the subject under investigation. (HS-PS3-3),(HSPS3-4),(HS-PS3-5)

EVSC.ETS2 Links among engineering, technology, science and society.

Daily Activities

For more information on this lesson please see the Lesson Resources below

ActivitiesDescription Resources and Materials
Activity One

Roller Coaster Ride

Watch the video of Dollywood’s Wild Eagle Ride:

Using prior knowledge of kinematics, students will use the Dollywood Wild Eagle Fact Sheet to answer. The answers will be reviewed as a class.


Science in the park workbook (p. 12-14). Extra review problems if needed (can be homework):

Use the TVA- Exploring Energy for a station investigation using slides:5-10 & 12. Alternative Energy

(scroll to the bottom for Energy Stations power- point)

Nearpod PhET lab


-Students will use the PhET simulation to explore the relationship between Kinetic and Potential energy for a skate park, create energy diagrams, and study how energy relates to a carnival slide.

Basic background teacher resource:

Computer and projector

Dollywood Wild Eagle fact sheet and student questions for student copies.

Printout of selected slides for stations with the following materials:

~ dropper poppers

~ shake light flashlight

~ steel spheres

~ spring toy (rollback car)

~ two different sized bouncing balls

~ wind up toy

computers and Nearpod

if Nearpod is not available you may go straight to the PhET website and create a free teacher account to access the teacher resources:
Activity TwoReview Newton’s Laws of Motion by viewing and discussing the Emaze:

Review the forces and laws of energy in a roller coaster ride

Students investigate energy in a roller coaster ride with the PBS website: Design a virtual roller coaster and complete a safety inspections follow-up:

computer and projector

Copy of Roller Coaster Physics

Jennifer Roberts with embedded questions.

student computers and PBS website

student computers and website

Activity ThreeA Tale of Friction Lesson:

Use the PowerPoint presentation here

teacher computer and projector

practice problems

Activity Four

Design a roller coaster:

If you do not teach a calculus-based course, scroll down the lesson to:

 Activity Scaling- Rolling with friction calculations (no calculus example)

Students will work in groups of 3-4 to complete the following tasks:

~  Students submit a plan of roller coaster design

~  Students design and test prototypes, gathering data

~ Students test each other's designs by gathering data (sharing  data with the class)

~Students analyze the data and decide which is the best design to give the biggest thrill while considering the safety of the riders (marbles).

~Students research Roller Coaster Engineering Jobs

~Students presentations

Students should be given a list of materials you will provide prior to their planning and design day.  If allowing them to bring materials from home, have them bring a list for approval before being brought in.

Technology Integration:

Community PartnersContribution to Learning ExperienceContact Information
Dollywood Theme ParkField trip or roller coaster engineer guest speaker

Dollywood Theme Park

2700 Dollywood Parks Blvd. 

Pigeon Forge, TN 37863


Tennessee Valley AuthorityGuest speaker on energy and how it is changed in form and conserved

Tennessee Valley Authority

400 West Summit Hill Drive

Knoxville, TN 37902


[email protected]

Capstone Presentation:

Student teams will develop a presentation of how a roller coaster involves many principles of physics, with special attention being given to the flow and conservation of energy. Students will use class data and pictures of the models to make an argument supported with evidence on the best model roller coaster design. Students should include what they learned about the job of roller coaster engineering.

Lesson Resources