Fun with physics at the Roller Coaster Riot

The floor of the Juneau Arts and Culture Center is a mess of construction paper, tape and elaborate design drawings.

There are no rules at the Roller Coaster Riot. Students are given kits that include various tracks, loop-de-loops, funnels and corkscrews, and told to use their imaginations to create a roller coaster that gets a marble from point A to point B.

“First we got 30 minutes to plan, and then we went over there to that table and got the paper, some scissors, and some tape,” says nine-year-old Brianna McKeel. She’s standing next to her group’s creation, “The Dolphin,” so named because the twin starting tracks at the top resemble a dolphin tail.

McKeel goes to Riverbend Elementary School, but for this project she’s working with students from other schools around the Capital City. As part of the Juneau School District’s Extended Learning Program for gifted students, they’ve been learning about physics, specifically Newton’s three laws of motion.

“The first law is an object in motion stays at motion unless a force acts on it,” McKeel says. “And Newton’s second law is an acceleration of an object is related to the force applied on it and is inversely related to its mass.”

That second law is expressed in the formula f = ma, or as the kids learn it, “F equals mama.”

McKeel also recites Newton’s third law: For every action – or force – there is an equal and opposite reaction. In a paper roller coaster, she says there are two forces at work on the marble.

“The force is from the gravity, like us dropping it, and [from] the way our tracks are tilted,” she says.

Ten-year-old Auke Bay Elementary School student Ben Ng says his group’s roller coaster, “The Ultimate,” went through several redesigns to get the right combination of forces acting on the marble.

“In one of our first designs we had a flat track and a loop-de-loop, and the ball barely made it up the loop-de-loop,” Ng says. “So we had to make more speed.”

Ng says they solved the problem by making their roller coaster taller.

“Gravity forces the ball to go down, and it builds up more momentum, so it goes faster,” he says.

Amy Jo Meiners is an Extended Learning teacher at both Auke Bay and Riverbend Elementary Schools. She says Roller Coaster Riot is a great way to teach kids physics at an early age.

“They have to use critical thinking skills and be creative in their problem solving,” Meiners says. “And it’s a great set up to do that.”

The activity is a partnership between the school district and the Juneau Economic Development Council. JEDC’s STEM education program is designed to expose kids to concepts and activities that lead to careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

The Roller Coaster Riot activity is partially funded by a grant from NASA.

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