Q4 STEAM: Roller Coaster Design & Engineering Challenge

2. Visual Learning


Model of a roller coaster created by and shown by a mechanical engineer named Chris Gray. He is holding a page-size board with a  handmade landscape with trees, grass, hills and the roller coaster.


 Watch this one minute video by Chris Gray, a Mechanical engineer and roller coaster designer from PBSkids.org


You have been hired by the Best Thrill Rides amusement park to design their roller coasters. They claim to be the best in the world at thrills and safety. You must use your knowledge of mass, gravity, potential and kinetic energy to design roller coasters that will not stall or crash.

Key Vocabulary

Potential energy: Potential energy is stored energy.

Kinetic energy: Kinetic energy is t
he energy of motion. definitions of kinetic and potential energy on TeacherTube

Energy loss:
When energy is converted from one form to another, or moved from one place to another, there can be some energy loss (e.g. when the coaster wheels run on the track some of the energy is converted to heat on the metal rails of the track)

Friction: Friction is t
he resistance that one surface or object encounters when moving over another.

Mass: Mass is the
 amount of matter an object has. 

Velocity: Velocity is t
he speed of something in a given direction.

Gravity: Gravity is the natural force that causes things to fall toward the earth.

I Can Statements

  • know how energy transfer (potential and kinetic) will impact my design for a roller coaster that has enough kinetic energy to complete a full run
  • understand how energy loss dissipates enough energy (through friction) to stop safely at the end of the designated track
  • apply the 5-step engineering design process to create a working model
  • set and evaluate some personal learning goals 

Your first challenge is to learn something about the science involved in how roller coasters work.


1. Do some research and work with a partner or small group of three, and learn about how roller coasters work. Each partner can use one of the following links and then share what they learned with the others.

Step 2: 5-Step Engineering Process

2. Learn about the 5-step Engineering Process  you will use for this Roller Coater Engineering Challenge.

This is a circle diagram with the words Ask - Imagine - Plan - Create - Improve around it. In the center is a picture of a roller coaster going in a loop

  1. ASK: What is the problem? How have others approached it? What are your constraints (such as age of the intended riders)?
  2. IMAGINE: What are some solutions? Brainstorm ideas (such as number of loops, hills). Choose the best one.
  3. PLAN: Draw a diagram. Make lists of materials you will need.
  4. CREATE: Follow your plan and create something. Test it out!
  5. IMPROVE: What works? What doesn't? What could work better? Modify your design to make it better. Test it out!

Step 3: Imagine and Plan

A. Check with your teacher and/or design partners, and create a note-taking document to take notes on your design decisions. Discuss and decide:

  • What note-taking application will you use? (Google docs, Word, Pages, a graphic organizer, or other?)
  • Will one partner take the notes or each person take turns
  • Will the note taking document be a shared document you can all edit?

B. This activity will use the a Design a Coaster web site (the previous Jason Simulator activity has been taken off-line).

C. You will be able to select the height and shape of the first hill, an exit path, height of the second hill, and to include a loop or not. Below is a screenshot of a design that received two thumbs down for safety and fun. Can you create a design that gets two thumbs up?

D. Imagine: What are some of the key concepts based on your research about applying the physics of kinetic and potential energy to create a safe and fun roller coaster?

Answer the following questions in your note-taking document using the vocabulary terms (Potential and kinetic energy, energy loss, friction, mass, velocity, gravity):

  1. Will you start your  coaster with a low or higher hill? Explain why.z
  2. What type of shape will be both safe and give the feeling of "weightlessness" for a thrilling experience (Smooth slope, angled slope or obtuse slope?
  3. When exiting the first hill what type of path will give the coaster maximum energy for the next hill?
  4. For the second hill, will there be enough energy to get to the top and over it? Will it create enough energy to do a loop?
  5. Will you have a loop, and if so what type will be safe?

Drawing: Have someone in your group draw what your coaster will look like using your choices of the five design options from above.

You are now ready for the Step 4 to try out your design ideas.


Step 4: Create and Improve

1. Your challenge is to apply what you have learned about potential and kinetic energy and try to complete a successful and safe coaster run making changes to the options as you go through the test runs. Remember to refer to your notes document in Step 3 as you plan and carry out your trial tests.

2. Open, copy or download, and complete the four part Coaster Testing Document: (Google doc, Microsoft Word docx)

3. One team member should open this Design a Roller Coaster web site and select the BEGIN button to step through your planned design.

4. At the end when you see Your Coaster, look for the thumbs up or thumbs down. Fill this in your coaster testing document.

5. Select "Your Safety Inspection" on the last step to learn from the experts about your coaster design.

6. Can you improve your design? Change some of your design and complete two more design trials and document your choices and the results.

Step 5: ASK

When you have finished your coaster activity in Step 4 ASK yourselves the following and write it up in your note taking document:

  1. How did the six different elements that you had to consider impact the success of your coaster?

  2. Describe the effects of potential and kinetic energy in both successful and unsuccessful attempts in the design of the coaster.

  3. Describe how the use of the simulation helped you learn about potential and kinetic energy.

*Be sure to use spell and grammar check on your document, include an image of your best coaster.

Check with your teacher on how to turn in your

  • Note Taking Document,
  • your drawing
  • your  Coaster Testing document.

Step 6: Build One - Engineering Challenge

STEPS for the Build One - Engineering Challenge:

TEAM: Form small design teams of three to four classmates.

GOAL: Your team will apply knowledge of the design process and how potential and kinetic energy work together to build a successful coaster model.

  1. At your first team meeting, read over the grading rubric for the roller coaster engineering challenge

  2. Analyze team member strengths by sharing personal expertise and interest areas such as: Internet research, good scavenger for materials needed, good design visionary, good assembler, good sketcher, good team leader to keep things on task, good note taker

  3. Identify a team note taker to make a copy of this real roller coaster team planning document and share it online with team members, or print it out

  4. Look for the green highlighted  ⭆ arrows. Begin to fill out part two adding ideas and team member names as they volunteer

  5. Make a drawing in step three and meet with your teacher for approval to begin construction and gathering materials. Modify the team planning chart if needed.

  6. Once approved, begin work to construct your coaster.

  7. Begin the test runs and document it in your real roller coaster team planning document. Complete all of the trial runs making changes and improvements as needed.

  8. Review the grading rubric for the roller coaster engineering challenge and make any changes needed before you turn your team planning document and roller coaster work into your teacher.

  9. Write a CONCLUSION REPORT - Create a three minute project report using any technology process the team selects and include some video and/or still images. Have a team discussion with each partner contributing to an analysis answering the following questions.

  • Did I/we meet my/our learning goal(s) at the top of the real roller coaster team planning document?

  • What are some good decisions and steps we took to solve specific problems with the design and construction


Completing this Quest

Congratulations on becoming an innovative designer by going through the five-step engineering process! Check with your teacher on how you will submit your work. 

I have completed the Quests as assigned by my teacher. 
Go to the Graduation Page for this Thing  

Competencies & Standards

MITECS   Michigan Integrated Technology Competencies for Students, and

ISTE Standards for Students

3. Knowledge Constructor
c. curate information from digital resources using a variety of tools and methods

4. Innovative Designer
a. know and use a deliberate design process for generating ideas, testing theories, creating innovative artifacts or solving authentic problems
b. select and use digital tools to plan and manage a design process that considers design constraints and calculated risks
c. develop, test and refine prototypes as part of a cyclical design process
d. exhibit a tolerance for ambiguity, perseverance and the capacity to work with open-ended problems

5. Computational Thinker
b. Collect data or identify relevant data sets

6. Creative Communicator
b. Create original works or responsibly repurpose or remix digital resources into new creations

Common Core Standards

Common Core Science Standards
MS-PS 3 a, b Energy