Physics: Paper roller coaster project!

I can't believe my seniors have less than one month left!  This time of year is ridiculously busy and filled with anticipation.  My kids are almost vibrating during the school day as they try to hold themselves back from just letting everything go.  They are so done: done with homework, done with assessments, done with thinking.  Prom-posals, hanging out on the senior green with a frisbee, what to have for lunch, online shopping for the perfect white graduation dress: these are the things I hear them talking passionately about.  How do I work with this?

In the past, I have tried to just press on through more content in my regular physics courses.  After wrapping up conservation of energy, I tackled circular motion and dabbled in basic circuits.  But it always felt like I was physically and mentally dragging them through it.  I was in desperate need of a project accessible to the comfort-level of these students who struggle with mathematically intensive work and can shut down quickly when they decide there's no path forward.

My current solution is the Paper Roller Coaster Project!  Here are the phases of the project:
  1. Students follow the provided instructions and templates (printed on cardstock paper) to create key components: support structure (beams, columns, shelves, etc.) and track (corkscrews, turns, loops, and funnels). (~3 classes)
  2. In groups (3 is ideal), the students assemble the roller coaster meeting the requirements.  Here is my project packet so you can see all the details and how the SBG system fits into the project. (~3 classes)
  3. Each student sketches and measures their roller coaster in preparation for theoretical velocity calculations. (~1 class)
  4. Each group runs an experiment using momentum and energy concepts to determine how much energy is lost in their roller coaster!
Right now, the students are wrapping up the build!
DiSanto physics class building paper roller coasters

What do I love about this project?

I love most that the students are engaged, invested, and busy the whole time they are with me.  During assembly, they can't help but get addicted to trying to get their marble to make it all the way through.  And it isn't easy!  As you can see in the packet, the 3-loop and 3-positive-incline requirements are hard to meet!  Many kids get so into it that they come and work on their coaster during free periods or visit other physics classes to check out other groups' progress.  Seniors who aren't even in the class come and check it out.  I am totally aware of the fact that they aren't constantly aligning each design decision with sound energy sense.  But they are in it!  And, as one of my colleagues reminded me as I was stressing aloud that the students aren't thinking about physics enough, that in and of itself is a win!  And while they may not be focusing on content skills, they are collaborating, arguing, resolving, questioning, explaining, leading, following, fine-motoring (not a verb as far as I know, but you know what I mean), and caring.

I also love the lab portion at the end of the project which incorporates momentum and energy.  While it's challenging for some groups to figure out how to put the experiment together, it's a wonderful way to combine collaboration and physics content!

Will I do it again?

Yes.  Or something like this.  My regular physics seniors need this right now.  There's enough application to satisfy my teacher conscience and enough challenging fun to keep them showing up with enthusiasm.

Where do we go from here?

After this project is over, the seniors only have a few weeks left!  There's one more project to close out the year, and they have a choice between two options.  I'm going to save those details for a future post!  I hope that entices you to read on...


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