The physics of thrills and chills

They’ll never look at an amusement park the same way ever again.
 
Fourth-graders recently wrapped up their unit on forces and energy by designing and building their own rollercoasters. After learning about force, velocity, friction, and other principles, the students took on the roles of mechanical engineers. Working in small teams, they used common items such as paper towel tubes and flexible plastic tubing to create their rollercoasters with a very specific mission. The end goal was for a steel ball to traverse the coaster course and hit another steel ball, propelling only the stationary ball forward and into a cup.
 
That transfer of energy from one ball to another proved a challenge. Many teams had coasters with hills that created too much energy, causing both balls to drop into the cup. Students tested, reworked their designs, and tested again, just as real engineers do.
 
“The pride on their faces when they were successful was something to see,” said teacher Ashley Piserchio. Her co-teacher, Kara Camporini, added “They were so engaged and excited by this project.”
 
Students summarized the ways that the activity reinforced their learning by writing observations that explained their successes and failures, and that identified the scientific principles that were at work.
 
The coaster-building activity was part of the district’s new elementary science curriculum which focuses on project-based learning activities. Through Inspire Science by McGraw Hill, students actively explore and test the scientific principles they’re learning about. When students investigate, problem-solve, argue, and discuss science, they can easily connect concepts to real-life, and they retain more knowledge.

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