Energy and Motion
ROLLER COASTER PHYSICS
You squeeze into the molded plastic seat and pull the padded bars down so they fit snug against your shoulders. The attendant comes by and pushes on the bars to make sure they are
locked into place. Then the cars of the roller coaster begin to move out of the station, going up and up, until you feel that you can touch the sky. Suddenly, with a lurch, your car
reaches the top. As it crests the hill and starts down the other side, you can feel it begin to pick up speed. Now you are flying down the track, up smaller hills, through loop-de-loops,
upside down and twisting all around. You scream as the roller coaster rounds a curve in the track and you are pushed to one side. Finally, the coaster begins to slow down. It comes
to a stop back at the station, and you are released. What a ride!
If you like to ride roller coasters, the description above probably sounds familiar. But did you know that roller coasters aren’t just thrill rides? Actually, roller coasters
are examples of the laws of physics in operation. Roller coasters are pulled to the top of the highest hill, then released. A coaster has potential energy as it is pulled to the top,
but this changes to kinetic energy as the coaster begins its descent. Gravity and friction control the rest of the ride. Why don’t the cars of a roller coaster fly off the track? Why
don’t the passengers fly out of the cars? How high can the first hill of a roller coaster be? What physical laws determine how many hills, curves, and loops a roller coaster track
can have? You can find answers to these questions in this WebQuest.
Your job in this WebQuest is to find out how roller coasters work and use this information to build a simple model of a roller coaster. You will learn about roller coaster design,
laws of motion, and about velocity and acceleration. You will design virtual roller coaster tracks and see what happens to the roller coaster when you change variables such as height
of hills, length of track, mass of the coaster, and speed of the coaster. Then you will collect simple materials and build a model of a roller coaster track. Finally, you will test
your track with a model roller coaster and report on your results.
Look at the web sites given here to find the information that will enable you to build a model of a roller coaster and test it.
- Amusement Park Physics: What are the
forces behind the fun?
Visit this site to learn about the physics of rides at amusement parks, particularly roller coasters, free fall rides, bumper cars, and more. Click on the roller coaster,
then scroll down and click on design a roller coaster to find out how physical laws affect ride design.
- Roller Coaster Physics
Go to this site for a graphic of a roller coaster with labels identifying the types of forces that affect the coaster as it follows the track. Click on any label to learn more about
- Kinetic and Potential Energy
At this site you can learn about kinetic and potential energy, the kinds of energy at work in roller coasters. Click on loops and turns to see what laws of motion are involved in
these design features.
Visit this site to design a roller coaster by manipulating the
height of the hills, sizes of the loops, speed of the coaster, and
mass of the coaster on an interactive screen. This is a fun site,
but it takes a while to load.
At this site you can learn all about the physics behind roller coaster design. Scroll down to find an experiment in which you can design and build a model roller coaster.
- Build a Coaster
There are few more exhilarating classrooms in physics than a roller coaster, according to this How Stuff Works Site. This site explains the principles of coasters.
1 class period for research, 1 class period for building and testing roller coaster designs
After you have completed your Internet research, decide what type of roller coaster model you want to build. Design the model, list the materials needed, then collect the materials
and build your roller coaster track. What material are you going to use to simulate the roller coaster track? It should be flexible enough so that you can include loops in your design.
What item are you going to use for the roller coaster itself? Make sure that the item has enough mass to build up speed as it goes down the track. Remember, a model doesn’t always
work exactly the same way as the real thing, so don’t be discouraged if your design has some flaws. Also, you probably will not need to include the initial hill where the roller coaster
is pulled up in your design. Assume that the coaster is already at the top of the first hill. Do not include any kind of motor in your design. When the track is finished, test your
design by placing the coaster at the top of the first hill and letting go. Remember, do not add any energy to the roller coaster by pushing it along the track. Did your coaster come
out at the end of the track? If not, adjust the track and try again. When you have completed your trials, prepare a short report. In the report, draw the final design and write a paragraph
describing your reasons for your design choice and how it worked when tested.
In the process of completing this WebQuest, you’ve become informed about the physical laws governing roller coaster design, the differences between potential and kinetic energy, and
how different variables affect roller coaster design. You have developed critical thinking and problem-solving skills as you planned, designed, and built a model roller coaster. Finally,
you have tested your design and reported on your experimental results. How did your design work? Did you have to make adjustments to the original design? How did your model roller
coaster compare to a real roller coaster?