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WORKSHOP Roller Coasters in your Classroom

Outreach Workshop: Roller Coasters In Your Classroom

Learn about the physics of energy, force, and motion by designing, building, and testing your own roller coaster.

Fees are determined by distance from the Museum:

  • Within 25 miles: $340
  • 26-50 miles: $370
  • 51+ miles: $370 + $.58 per mile
  • Each additional hour: $125

Register today!

Michigan K-12 Science Standards


Analyze data to determine if a design solution works as intended to change the speed or direction of an object with a push or a pull.


Make observations and/or measurements of an object’s motion to provide evidence that a pattern can be used to predict future motion.


Use evidence to construct an explanation relating the speed of an object to the energy of that object.


Apply scientific ideas to design, test, and refine a device that converts energy from one form to another.


Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.


Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.


Plan and carry out fair tests in which variables are controlled and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved.


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


Develop a model to generate data for iterative testing and modification of a proposed object, tool, or process such that an optimal design can be achieved.

Pre-visit Vocabulary

Centrifugal Force: A virtual force felt by a body in motion around an axis. This apparent force acts opposite the centripetal force and is caused by the natural inertia of the body in motion.

Centripetal Force: The force responsible for pulling an object in rotation back towards the axis.

Energy: The capacity to do work.

Friction: Surface-to-surface resistance between two objects, resulting in the loss of energy to heat.

Gravity: The force of attraction towards the center of the earth.

Inertia: The tendency for an object in motion to stay in motion or an object at rest to stay at rest so long as it is not acted upon by an external force.

Kinetic Energy: The energy of an object based on its movement.

Parabola: The natural path of an object in motion through the air. A parabola is completely symmetric about the axis.

Potential Energy: The energy of an object based on its location. This is the stored energy.

Roller Coaster: A gravity-based train where all of the movement is propelled by gravity. The only input energy is to reach the starting point.

Post-visit Activity

Post-visit activities provide your students with an opportunity to review workshop-presented concepts and introduce related subjects. Below you will find a classroom extension activity and a list of suggested resources for further exploration. We hope that you enjoyed our Outreach Hands-On Workshop and we look forward to visiting your students again!

Hands-on Activity: Flying High

  • Materials
  • 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.


WORKSHOP Roller Coasters in your Classroom


Library, School

50 minutes

3-5th, 6-8th


Engineering, Math, Physical Sciences, Writing

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.