Picture of Marble Roller Coaster

"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.
JamieH223 days ago
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!
JeffS234 months ago

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.

AugustE16 months ago

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.

fish_dude1 year ago
we just did this exact same thing in physics class
anoh1 year ago
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.
WYE_Lance (author)  dirtydiaperchanger2 years ago
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.
wilgubeast2 years ago
Foam pipe insulation is SO MUCH FUN. Great idea, great documentation, and great academic connection. Awesome work.
CrLz2 years ago
Nice hands on learning. Great share!