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Standard Lab: The Ups and Downs of Roller Coaster Physics (4th-8th)

Experiment with momentum by collaborating with your peers and designing your own roller coaster. Discover how kinetic and potential energy work within the realm of physics and let the forces take you for a ride! Register today!

Cost: $4 per student

Standard labs are booked for a minimum of 15 students with a minimum price of $60.

Michigan Grade Level Content Expectations, Science v.1.09

  • Demonstrate scientific concepts through various illustrations, performances, models, exhibits and activities. (S.RS.04.11)
  • Distinguish between contact forces and non-contact forces. (P.FM.05.21)
  • Demonstrate contact and non-contact forces to change the motion of an object. (P.FM.05.22)
  • Identify kinetic or potential energy in everyday situations (for example: stretched rubber band, objects in motion, ball on a hill, food energy). (P.EN.06.11)
  • Demonstrate the transformation between potential and kinetic energy in simple mechanical systems (for example: roller coasters, pendulums). (P.EN.06.12)

Next Generation Science Standards

Students participating in this program will explore science content as stated in the Disciplinary Core Ideas. They will engage in science and engineering practices as they plan and conduct investigations to answer questions regarding energy, forces and motion.

PS2.A: Forces and Motion

  • Each force acts on one particular object and has both strength and a direction. An object at rest typically has multiple forces acting on it, but they add to give zero net force on the object. Forces that do not sum to zero can cause changes in the object’s speed or direction of motion.

PS2.B: Types of Interactions

  • When objects touch or collide, they push on one another and can change motion.
  • Objects in contact exert forces on each other.

PS3.A: Definitions of Energy

  • The faster a given object is moving, the more energy it possesses.
  • Motion energy is properly called kinetic energy; it is proportional to the mass of the moving object and grows with the square of its speed.
  • A system of objects may also contain stored (potential) energy, depending on their relative positions.

PS3.B: Conservation of Energy and Energy Transfer

  • Energy is present whenever there are moving objects, sound, light, or heat. When objects collide, energy can be transferred from one object to another, thereby changing their motion. In such collisions, some energy is typically also transferred to the surrounding air; as a result, the air gets heated and sound is produced.

PS3.D: Energy in Chemical Processes and Everyday Life

  • The expression “produce energy” typically refers to the conversion of stored energy into a desired form for practical use.

ETS1.A: Defining and Delimiting Engineering Problems

  • A situation that people want to change or create can be approached as a problem to be solved through engineering.
  • Asking questions, making observations, and gathering information are helpful in thinking about problems.
  • Before beginning to design a solution, it is important to clearly understand the problem.
  • Possible solutions to a problem are limited by available materials and resources (constraints). The success of a designed solution is determined by considering the desired features of a solution (criteria). Different proposals for solutions can be compared on the basis of how well each one meets the specified criteria for success or how well each takes the constraints into account.

ETS1.B: Developing Possible Solutions

  • Designs can be conveyed through sketches, drawings, or physical models. These representations are useful in communicating ideas for a problem’s solutions to other people.
  • Research on a problem should be carried out before beginning to design a solution. Testing a solution involves investigating how well it performs under a range of likely conditions.
  • At whatever stage, communicating with peers about proposed solutions is an important part of the design process, and shared ideas can lead to improved designs.
  • Tests are often designed to identify failure points or difficulties, which suggest the elements of the design that need to be improved.
  • A solution needs to be tested, and then modified on the basis of the test results, in order to improve it.
  • Sometimes parts of different solutions can be combined to create a solution that is better than any of its predecessors.
  • Models of all kinds are important for testing solutions.

ETS1.C: Optimizing the Design Solution

  • Because there is always more than one possible solution to a problem, it is useful to compare and test designs.
  • Different solutions need to be tested in order to determine which of them best solves the problem, given the criteria and the constraints.
  • The iterative process of testing the most promising solutions and modifying what is proposed on the basis of the test results leads to greater refinement and ultimately to an optimal solution.

The Ups and Downs of Roller Coaster Physics Pre-visit Materials

During Your Visit to the ScienceWorks Lab students will be expected to:

  • Sit in tables of 6 students and (at least) 1 adult
  • Students should be prepared to give their attention to the Lab instructors when requested to “Give Me Five”
  • Work cooperatively with one another at the table
  • Follow the hands-on procedures just as the Lab teacher or assistant explains them
  • Handle materials and equipment carefully

It is important that teachers and chaperones:

  • Help to focus the students’ attention
  • Assist students with the hands-on activities and experiments when necessary
  • Turn off cell phones and pagers during the class


Physics: The science of matter and its motion, as well as space and time; the science that deals with concepts such as force, energy, mass and charge.

Momentum: The product of mass and velocity of an object; a conserved quantity, meaning that the total momentum of any closed system (one not affected by external forces) cannot change.

Potential Energy: Energy stored within a physical system. This energy can be released or converted into other forms of energy, including kinetic energy. It is called potential energy because it has the potential to change the states of objects in the system when the energy is released.

Kinetic Energy: The extra energy, which an object possesses due to its motion; the work needed to accelerate a body of a given mass from rest to its current velocity. Having gained this energy during its acceleration, the body maintains this kinetic energy unless its speed changes.

The Ups and Downs of Roller Coaster Physics Post-visit Activity: Flying High

Post-visit activities will help reiterate new concepts and tie the ScienceWorks Lab experience to your classroom curriculum. Below you will find a classroom activity and a list of suggested resources for further information. We hope that you enjoyed your field trip. Visit us again!


  • 2 Golf balls
  • 2 Tennis balls
  • 2 Basketballs
  • Outdoor space


This is a great demonstration for illustrating the principle of conservation of momentum. Take your class outside and ask if they know what momentum is. Explain that momentum is equal to the mass times the velocity of an object. The law of conservation says that if two (or more) objects collide, the total momentum before the collision must be equal to the total momentum after, not taking into consideration principles like gravity and friction. For the demonstration, first stack the two basketballs on top of each other and drop them as one. Observe what happens. Now, hold the tennis ball on top of the basketball and repeat. Be careful that nothing is in line with the tennis ball. Here, you’ll notice that the tennis ball travels a good distance higher than the drop point.

Try different combinations to see if you can maximize the height. To understand what’s going on, explain that the total mass of your two objects can be thought of as one larger object falling at a specific velocity. When they hit the ground, the top one bounces off the bottom one. The small one soars because you’ve suddenly removed most of the mass. As a result, the velocity must increase in order to compensate.

Example: Imagine you have a 10 pound ball and a 1 pound ball stacked and falling at 10 meters per second hit the ground. The 10 pound ball isn’t elastic enough to bounce at all. What velocity will the 1 pound ball now have? Your total initial mass = 11 pounds. So, set up your equation like this: 11lb × 10m/s = 1lb × vm/s (where v = the unknown velocity). If you solve for v, you should get 110m/s! This is about third the velocity of sound! Of course, in the real world, the heavy ball bounces a little and a lot of energy is lost in the process.

Suggested Resources


Mason, Paul. Roller Coaster! (Raintree Fusion: Motion and Accelleration). Raintree. 2006.
Branley, Franklyn M. and Edward Miller. Gravity is a Mystery. Collins. 2007.
Prasad, Kamal and Aurore Simonnet. Why Can’t I Jump Very High? A Book About Gravity. Science Square Publishing. 2004.
Usborne Books. Illustrated Dictionary of Physics. Usborne Books. 2000.


Momentum Conservation Principle
Roller Coaster
Funderstanding Roller Coaster
Rollercoaster Database

Standard Lab: The Ups and Downs of Roller Coaster Physics (4th-8th)


School, Scouts

50 minutes

3-5th, 6-8th

20, 30, 60, 100

Engineering, Physical Sciences

Still not sure we have the experience you want?

Visit unityinlearning.org to open a gateway to hands-on discovery, exploration of the natural world, and experiences that take flight.

Through the Unity in Learning partnership with the Ann Arbor Hands-On MuseumLeslie Science and Nature Center, and Yankee Air Museum we provide over 100 different  programs at our facilities, on site at your location, or through interactive video conferencing.