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A Roller Coaster Ride of Science!

A Roller Coaster Ride of Science!

Last month, VISTA Elementary Science Institute participant Brenda Black conducted an exciting problem-based learning unit on roller coaster design with her class at Rock Hill Elementary School in Stafford VA. After Brenda and her VISTA-appointed coach Cheryl Hinzman contacted us to let us know how much fun they were having and how much the students were learning, we took the time to ask a few follow up questions.

VISTA: Thanks for getting in touch with us! So Brenda, how has VISTA helped you to engage your students in science?

VISTA taught me how to write a problem-based learning (PBL) unit and how to embed meaningful hands-on activities that tie into the unit’s overarching science question. With regards to our roller coaster PBL, the question was: “How can we design a rollercoaster that is self-propelled and maintains optimum speed for as long as possible?”

VISTA: So has this type of problem-based, hands-on science changed your educational style?

My style has changed in that I am able to integrate STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) into my PBL unit so that the work my students are doing is meaningful and crosses curriculums. In my roller coaster PBL, for instance, we researched, conducted experiments, and built K’NEX car models to represent the different types of forces needed to power vehicles. We graphed speeds of various vehicles with and without friction, using standard and metric forms of measurement, and simulated and graphed kinetic and potential energy through ExploreLearning’s interactive online GIZMO programs (provided by the VISTA grant). We used the knowledge from these activities to build our roller coasters.

Because of this, the students were able to utilize STEM in a comprehensive way: they learned about force and motion in science; used technology to help simulate speed, weight, and friction; read and interpreted graphs to help them understand change over time and how weight and force affect speed and velocity; and engineered their roller coasters through drawing and redesigning until they came to their final designs. I was even able to throw in a little language education by encouraging them write persuasive essays to enter Kings Dominion’s rollercoaster design contest

VISTA: What was the students’ reaction to all of this?

You can see for yourself just how much they’re learning! As part of our presentation, my fourth-grade students answered the following questions (these are their real answers):

“What is optimum?” 

Tyler: Optimum is the best amount of potential and kinetic energy needed to conserve energy so that the roller coaster can be self-propelled.   

“How will it self-propel?”

Matthew: The roller coaster will self-propel by just the right amount of kinetic and potential energy to conserve energy until friction or a force is added to stop the roller coaster.  

“What makes the roller coaster move?”

Jade: The roller coaster starts off with potential energy. Work is needed to produce a force that will change the roller coaster’s potential energy into kinetic energy. The work in our roller coasters is the slight push or drop we give our marble [the students used marbles to represent vehicles moving along a track]. 

“What will the roller coaster look like?”

Kamila: When it came time to design our roller coasters, we designed what we thought they would look like on paper. We also brainstormed what materials we might need to build them. We all agreed we would need to start high so that gravity could help speed up our marbles in order to move them through the rollercoaster tracks. 

“What is potential energy?”

Isaiah: Potential energy is the energy something has because of its position or condition. Our marbles have potential energy to move along the track of our roller coasters, but only after they are acted on by a force.

“What is Kinetic energy?”

Matthew L: Kinetic energy is the energy of motion. In the conservation of potential and kinetic energy there must be a balance so that no energy is lost. Energy is only lost if some outside source of energy acts on it. 

VISTA: That’s pretty amazing for fourth grade!

If you’re interested in teaching hands-on science like Brenda, we’re now accepting applications for our annual Elementary Science Institute. Learn more here

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