"We're doing the roller coasters?! Yes!!"

That's the response I get from students who've taken my engineering classes before when they find out it's marble roller coaster day. It's a class favorite. It's an open-ended, fast-paced, constantly evolving, and easy to explain. This project reaches a wide span of grade ranges, from K-12. I'd like to note that the concept for this project is not my own, but the building and teaching techniques are.

Here's a brief clip from some in-class footage that I took during one of my classes:

The lesson plan

Difficulty: 1/5
Prep work: 2/5
Setup time: 1/5
Clean up: 2/5

Prep: Arrange plenty of space in your room
Cleanup: Allow 2 minutes near end of class for students to try each others coasters. Then have everyone gently take apart only their own roller coaster and clump all the used tape into a giant tape ball

Start-of-class lecture

  • Identify the two parts: the foam tubing (roller coaster track) and marbles
  • Demonstrate how the marble can roll in the track
  • Show students the construction techniques from steps 3-6 in 5 minutes or less
  • Identify the 4 big mistakes (step 8)
  • Briefly define momentum (a force that keeps something moving in the direction it's already going in), speed (how fast an object is moving), and energy (how much force an object has because it is moving). There are different but related concepts - help students use them correctly.
  • Encourage students to work in groups of 3-5 people.

Learning objective:

  • Students will comprehend basic physics concepts that are applicable to roller coaster construction, including potential energy, kinetic energy, and momentum.
  • Students will apply their understanding of those concepts as they construct and text their roller coaster.
  • Through a cycle of building, testing, observing and revision, students will gain an experiential understanding of fundamental physics concepts and the basics of successful roller coaster construction
  • Students will also have an unstructured opportunity to hone teambuilding skills as they communicate with their peers during roller coaster construction.

Step 1: Materials

1" foam pipe insulation from local hardware store
Masking tape

You can also include elements from around the classroom, like tables, chairs, yardsticks, string, etc. To make the project more interesting, I sometimes acquire refrigerator-sized cardboard boxes and duct tape them to the floor of the classroom. Turn your class into an amusement park!
<p>This is one of my investigatory projects I need to pass to graduate to high school. I can't find any cooper pipe insulator in my country. Is it okay if I use air foam material? I need to finish this project in only 3 days, I'm only in the 6th grade.</p>
My four year old has been asking to make a roller coaster. He is a bit young for some of the lecture points, but I think he will LOVE experimenting with this. Thank you!
<p>Great activity! I've been doing this for 20+ years in my K,1, and 2 classrooms. toilet paper tubes fir perfectly to make tunnels and many students will use those tubes to be the place where they tape the track to the floor. My only suggestion (but it requires more time or several days of exploration to do it this way) is to not tell them about the need to start the track high in order to get the speed/force needed and also not to tell them about the need to bend the track. Allowing them to test their tracks, identify problems, create solutions to problems, and test these solutions until they fix the problem will only serve to allow them to construct their own knowledge and come to a better understanding of the scientific principles at play in this project. </p>
<p>I'm a retired teacher in SLC, UT and have about 50 pieces of foam track. If you're in the area. come and get it.</p>
we just did this exact same thing in physics class
cool! my brother would like it.
Great instructable! The only thing I would change is the force applied to the marble on the track is centripetal, not centrifugal.
Thanks for catching that - It's corrected now :)
Great activity, I have used this in high school too. Its easy to add calculations for work kinetic energy theorem and calculate the energy lost to track movement, then have students improve their design and determine how much their redesign was able to improve energy efficiency.
Foam pipe insulation is SO MUCH FUN. Great idea, great documentation, and great academic connection. Awesome work.
Nice hands on learning. Great share!

About This Instructable


111 favorites


Bio: I create project-based engineering projects for my after school program, which is what you see on Instructables. I also develop hands-on science curriculum for a ... More »
More by WYE_Lance: Simple Pneumatic Machine Extending Grabber Create a Maker Space for Kids
Add instructable to: