There are so many STEM activities for elementary students, but what about middle school STEM activities? There are typically a lot fewer middle school STEM lesson plans available for teachers. But today is your lucky day, because today, we are offering a marble STEM challenge lesson plan that delves into the exciting realm of roller coaster physics. Easily demonstrate the concepts of potential and kinetic energy using just a marble and paper.
Our straightforward marble STEM challenge roller coaster lesson plan simplifies teaching physics for and provides an exciting introduction into physics at a middle school level.
Find out how to teach this exciting STEM lesson that is a favorite with middle school students and kids in upper elementary.
How to Make a Roller Coaster Project
Learn about the fascinating physics of roller coasters!
Understand the energy conversion between gravitational potential energy and kinetic energy, design your very own roller coaster model, and put your problem-solving skills to the test.
Roller Coaster STEM Challenge Table of Contents
Physics STEM Resources
Here are some physics resources and demonstrations that help kids understand the basics of physics in a hands-on way!
How do Marble Roller Coasters Work?
Your roller coaster marble STEM challenge operates on physics! How? It’s all about energy!
Roller coasters don’t need engines like cars or trains. How do they move so fast and excitingly then?
They cleverly use the stored energy from being pulled up a big hill (that’s gravitational potential energy). When they zoom down, this energy becomes motion energy, known as kinetic energy.
As the marble climbs up another hill or twist around, they lose some of that motion energy because of friction and air pushing against it.
Roller coaster project physics
Marble roller coasters are a hands-on way to explore the fundamental principles of physics, particularly those related to potential and kinetic energy, gravity, and friction.
Here’s a basic breakdown of how your marble STEM challenge coaster will work:
Potential Energy (Stored Energy):
When you lift the marble to the top of the roller coaster track, you’re giving it gravitational potential energy.
This energy is determined by the marble’s height relative to the lowest point in the coaster. The higher it is, the more potential energy it has.
Kinetic Energy (Motion Energy):
As you release the marble, the potential energy starts converting to kinetic energy.
The marble begins to move, gaining speed as it goes downhill due to the force of gravity.
Conservation of Energy:
In an ideal world (without friction or air resistance), the total energy in the system remains constant.
So, the potential energy the marble has at the top is converted entirely into kinetic energy as it moves down.
Some of this energy is lost to friction and air resistance, which is why marble roller coasters (and real ones) eventually come to a stop.
Curves, Loops, and Hills:
The design of the track will influence the marble’s speed and direction. For instance:
For a marble to successfully navigate a loop, it must have enough kinetic energy (speed) to overcome gravity and friction.
After a descent, a marble can climb a hill using the kinetic energy it gained from the previous drop, but it will not climb higher than its initial release height (ignoring friction).
Each subsequent hill is typically lower than the previous one.
Curves can change the direction of the marble, and depending on the banking and tightness of the curve, it can also affect the marble’s speed.
Friction and Air Resistance:
These are forces that work against the marble’s motion.
The roughness of the track, the material of the marble, and even the air can slow down the marble.
In designing an efficient marble roller coaster, one would aim to minimize these forces.
Marble STEM Challenge End:
The marble’s energy eventually diminishes due to friction and air resistance, causing the marble to stop, marking the end of its journey.
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What Makes a Good Roller Coaster Design?
There are some fundamental principles at work that are necessary to consider while making a paper roller coaster track for a marble.
Here is what is essential to creating a good marble STEM challenge roller coaster design:
Sturdy Base: The foundation of your coaster is essential. Ensure the base is wide and robust enough to support the entire structure.
Smooth Tracks: The smoother the tracks, the less friction the marble will encounter, allowing it to maintain its speed.
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Gradual Slopes: Start with a high drop to give the marble initial energy, but subsequent slopes should be more gradual to maintain the marble’s momentum.
Banked Turns: To prevent the marble from flying off the coaster during turns, bank or tilt the turns. This uses centripetal force to keep the marble on the track.
Variety of Features: Introduce various features like loops, tunnels, or spirals.
Remember that loops need to be well-calculated; the marble requires enough kinetic energy to complete the loop without falling out.
Consistent Width: Ensure the width of the track remains consistent so the marble doesn’t get stuck or fly off the sides.
Reinforcements: Paper can be flimsy, so reinforce joints and crucial parts of your coaster with tape, glue, or additional layers of paper.
Multiple Tests: Continuously test your roller coaster with the marble as you build. This iterative process helps identify problems early on and makes the design process more efficient.
Safety Barriers: Especially if you’re designing a coaster with sharp turns or steep drops, consider adding “safety barriers” or “walls” on the sides of the tracks to prevent the marble from flying off.
Minimal Joints: The fewer joints or connections in the paper, the smoother the ride for the marble. Each joint can introduce bumps or friction.
Marble Roller Coaster Materials
Here are the materials that you will need to create the paper roller coaster for the marble STEM challenge!
- Construction paper
- Masking tape
- Drinking straws
- STEM worksheet
- Muffin cups
- STEM notebook
- Scientific calculator
Physics Books for Students
Students beyond primary grades will find these physics books interesting!
Learn more about energy, forces and motion, and learn how rectilinear motion works and the math behind it.
How to Build a Roller Coaster for a Marble
Follow along with this middle school physics lesson plan to make teaching physics to middle schoolers a breeze in the marble STEM challenge!