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Paper Roller Coasters

Physical science design activity developed by Andrew Suenobu for the Hawaii State Department of Education. Download PDF HERE.


Teams of high school students learn about energy and energy transformation, then use their knowledge to design and build a paper model of the
most fun and exciting roller coaster they can imagine.

Grade level: 9-12

Time: Nine 60-minute periods (fewer if just doing design project)

Learning objectives

After doing this unit, students should be able to:

  • Understand that energy is the ability to do work
  • Understand that moving objects lose energy due to friction, air resistance, and rotational motion
  • Calculate gravitational potential energy by measuring mass and height
  • Calculate velocity by measuring distance and time.
  • Calculate kinetic energy based on velocity
  • Explain how the law of conservation of energy is applied to their roller coaster
  • Describe ways that energy is transformed from one form to another in their roller coaster
  • Explain how each of Newton’s Laws of Motion applies to their roller coaster
  • Use vectors to show the relative speed, direction, and acceleration of the marble as it travels down their roller coaster

Learning standards

Next Generation Science Standards

Disciplinary Core Ideas – PS2.B: Types of interactions; gavitational forces are always attractive. There is a gravitational force
between any two masses, but it is very small except when one or both of the objects have large mass, such as the Earth and the sun.

PS3-5: Construct, use, and present arguments to support the claim that when kinetic energy of an object changes, energy is transferred to or from the object.

Common Core Mathematics Standards

  • CCSS.Math.Content.HSA-SSE.A.1. Interpret expressions that represent a quantity in terms of its context.
  • CCSS.Math.Content.HSA-CED.A.4. Rearrange formulas to highlight a quantity of interest, using the same reasoning as in solving equations.
  • CCSS.Math.Content.HSN-VM.A.1. Recognize vector quantities as having both magnitude and direction. Represent vector quantities by directed line segments, and use appropriate symbols for vectors and their magnitudes.

Common Core Literacy Standards

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.9-10.2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
• CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.1 Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 9–10 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

STEM Competencies

  • Collaborates with, helps and encourages others in group situations.
    Reasonably implements a solution.
    Generates new and creative ideas and approaches to developing solutions.
    Evaluates the effectiveness (and ethical considerations) to a solution and makes adjustments as needed.
    Recognizes and understands what quality performances and products are.


For the Falling Things Lab and Potential and Kinetic Energy Lab (Days 1 & 2)

• Meter sticks (8 – one for each station)
• Timers (8 – one for each station)
• Clay
• Plastic wrap
• Ball bearing
• Ink
• Pipette
• Tennis ball
• Scissors
• Ramp
• Sand
• Container

For the Roller Coasters (Days 3-9)


ENGAGE (Prior to Day 1)
• Show video about roller coasters.
• Show sample paper roller coaster. (Teacher or student-created)
• Show videos of sample paper roller coasters. (Samples available at Paper Roller Coasters or
on YouTube)

EXPLAIN (Prior to Day 1 )
• Review potential and kinetic energy, velocity, acceleration, and vectors. (Newton’s Laws optional)
• Go over project requirements and criteria.
• Explain how to use the paper templates to build roller coasters. Reusable templates are available for sale ($20) at Paper Roller Coasters.


  1. Bell work: What happens to the speed of objects as they fall? What evidence do you have that supports this?
  2. Class discussion: Students share answers and respond to each other. Don’t actually give the answer yet.

Falling Things Lab
Set up stations up around the room, with instructions, a meter stick, and a timer at each one. Students will have two minutes per station, during which time they will be dropping objects from higher and higher heights, observing and recording what happens, and making generalizations about what happens to the speed of objects as they fall based on their observations.

Click HERE for a description of the stations. diagrams, and exercises.

  • Clay Ball
    Drop the clay ball onto the floor from various heights. Before each drop, roll the ball back into a round shape.
  • Plastic Wrap & Ball Bearing
    Stretch plastic wrap over the plastic cup, holding it on with the rubber band. Drop the ball bearing onto the plastic wrap from gradually increasing heights.
  • Ink Drops
    Use the dropper to squeeze drops of ink onto the paper from various heights, beginning at about 1 cm.
  • Ball Bounce
    Drop the tennis ball from various heights.
  • Scissors & Play-Doh
    Hold the scissors point-down directly over the Play-Doh. Release the scissors. Smooth the Play-Doh out before each drop. Drop the scissors from various heights.
  • Ball Bearing on a Ramp
    Roll the ball bearing off the ramp and onto the floor, using the block of wood to raise the plastic track to various heights.
  • Ball Sounds
    Drop the balls from various heights and listen to the sound they make when they hit the ground.
  • Ball Bearing & Sand
    Drop the ball bearing into the container of sand from various heights.

Class discussion: Now how would you answer the bell work question? Students should be able to conclude that objects accelerate as they fall. They should now have more evidence to back up their claims.

Lecture: Energy transformations – Slideshow lecture on Energy transformations with focus on PE & KE with sample exercises. [Page 28 and 29 of lesson]. Go over exercises as a class.

Dropping bowling ball demo – Teacher drops a bowling ball onto a soda can. As you do the demo, explain that as you lift the bowling ball, you are giving it PE and PE=mgh. Ask students what will happen to the PE if you drop it. Students should be able to tell you that PE is transformed into KE. Ask how much KE it should have before it hits. They should be able to tell you that it’s the same as the PE at the top. Drop the ball onto the can. It should crush if you hitit squarely. Tell the students that the KE was used to do work on the can. Ask how much work. If students cannot answer, tell them it is the same as the initial PE and the final KE. Remind students that work, like E, is measured in Joules.

PE & KE worksheet – Students work on exercises on their own to calculate PE, KE, and velocity

Potential Energy & Kinetic Energy Lab.

Do this lab after going over PE/KE calculations to give practice with calculations of PE at the top and KE and velocity at the bottom, and with making a paper roller coaster part (straight ramp)

Stress that students should make the edges of their folds as smooth and straight as possible to reduce friction. They can do this by using a ruler and tracing over the fold lines with a ballpoint pen to create a crease. Then they can fold the paper over the ruler to keep the line straight.

Click HERE for lesson plan [PDF].

Click HERE for station descriptions and instructions, plus student worksheets.

Topsail High School’s honors physics paper roller coaster (2012)

EXTEND (Days 2-5)

• Students build their own roller coasters in groups.

Note: Prepare in advance the cardboard bases, one 18 x 24-inch rectangle for each team.

Background: Roller coasters operate on the principles of potential and kinetic energy. The car is raised to a certain height, giving it gravitational potential energy. Then it is released, and the potential energy is converted into kinetic energy—the energy of motion. You will build your own roller coaster to investigate the relationship between potential and kinetic energy.

Task: You are a roller coaster manufacturer competing for a bid to build a roller coaster for an amusement park. Your task is to design and build a paper model of the most fun and exciting roller coaster you can using the templates provided. You also need to be able to explain the physics behind it.

The entire roller coaster must fit on the cardboard base provided (18˝x 24˝). The coaster must include at least one curve, loop, and hill. It must also include one other element of your own design; this may be made by modifying the supplied templates or you may make it out of a material of your choice (not pre-made). The end point should be at ground level and free from obstruction.

You will be expected to keep an engineering journal of your design and build process as well as a data sheet that summarizes the physics behind your roller coaster.

You will then present your roller coaster to the amusement park manager (teacher) and a panel of roller coaster enthusiasts (fellow students) and explain the design and build of the roller coaster and why it is the most fun and exciting based on the physics involved. Click HERE for evaluation sheet.

o Ask: Students ask questions to clarify their understanding of the project requirements.
o Imagine: Students brainstorm ideas for making their roller coasters. Students brainstorm individually at first and then get together and share their ideas in their group.
o Plan: Students draw out and submit a plan for their roller coasters.
o Create: Students build their roller coaster according to their plans.
o Experiment/Improve: Students will record what they tried, why they tried it, what the results were, and what they ended up doing to improve the roller coaster.

EVALUATE (Days 6-7)
Data sheet. Data sheet will include a diagram of their roller coaster, a table with data and calculations, and an explanation of why their roller coaster is fun using the concepts of speed, velocity, acceleration, and potential and kinetic energy. (Newton’s Laws optional)
• Roller coaster. Use criteria in handout [.doc] or on page 19 of lesson.
• Presentation: Students will present their roller coasters explaining what they included on it and why they built it the way they did, and why their roller coaster is the best. Students must use the concepts of speed, velocity, acceleration, and potential & kinetic energy (Newton’s Laws
optional) in their explanation. See scoring rubric on criteria handout [.doc] or on page 19 of lesson.

Activity extension

Increase design constraints by adding material costs and requiring designs to be longer and have a greater number of curves or loops. See The Great Paper Roller Coaster Challenge.


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