Paper Roller Coasters: A Real Life Science Application

On April 24, our Fairmont Historic Anaheim Campus 8th graders gathered in the gym for the event of the year: paper roller coaster building. The annual event consists of students creating a roller coaster, made of paper and tape, with the goal of getting a marble through the coaster from start to finish the quickest. The event also challenges students to build a better coaster than their teachers, who steal spare parts from the students to make their own coaster.

The event started a few days before as students broke into teams and spent the weekend cutting out paper pieces for their coasters and creating a game plan. Monday morning, they sat eagerly in the gym, all of their paper pieces strewn out around the floor in front of them, waiting anxiously for the go-ahead to start building. The paper roller coaster project, while fun, gives students a practical application of physics principles.

“We’re doing a lesson on physics right now, so we’re trying to learn how to use momentum and force, and how to use acceleration in the right places,” explained 8th grader Emily B.

The students had until 2:30 pm to finish their paper roller coasters. At that time, teachers began the judging process and students from other grade levels were welcomed into the gym to see the elaborate coasters. The coasters delighted the younger students who saw SpongeBob SquarePants, Disney’s Pixar, Minecraft, and other beloved franchises featured on the projects.

When asked what their favorite coaster was, several 3rd graders gathered around to make their opinions known.

“Minecraft!” Raymond H. and Sky P. said excitedly.

A gaming system set up amongst one of the paper roller coasters.

It wasn’t difficult to see why the coaster had caught their attention. The Minecraft team had programmed lights along their paper roller coaster and set up a gaming system so observing students could actually play the popular world-building video game. Team member, Alex, set up the game system by programming a Raspberry Pi to run the game. The younger students may have been more impressed by playing Minecraft during school hours than the computer science work that went into the project, but it was undeniably an impressive feat.

The Minecraft team wasn’t the only group to make use of electronics, the Pixar team also decorated their paper roller coaster with lights, and though there was no electronic game system, they won the day by beating their teachers’ coaster time.

“It went really well,” said Team Pixar members, Elisabeth F. and Emily B.  “We beat the teachers and, so far, we have the longest time.” Team Pixar wins the 8th Grade Paper Roller Coaster Competition

Moments later, the team officially won, beating out all the teams’ times, and they gathered for photos in excitement.

Once the winners were announced and school buses began to pull up, signaling the end of an exciting school day, students took joy in destroying the coasters that took them all day to build. The teams joined together to quickly remove any electronic pieces so they could safely jump into the pile of paper and call it a day.

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