Let’s Ride: Roller Coaster Design and Primary Sources

This post was written by Amara L. Alexander, 2019-20 Library of Congress Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator, and Matthew Bryant, 2019-20 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator-Congressional Fellow.

Lina Beecher’s Flip Flap Railway was the first looping roller coaster in North America, debuting at New York’s Coney Island in the late 1890s, and was known for its engineering design and feeling of acceleration on the passenger’s body – g-forces – during the ride. Students can analyze the engineering design of this historical roller coaster and then apply what they learn to their own design.

The Flip Flap, Coney Island. Detroit Publishing Company

The flip-flap

Roller coasters are crafted to exchange two types of energy: gravitational and kinetic. Gravitational energy, sometimes called “gravitational potential energy” is the energy stored due to an object’s position in a gravitational field. Kinetic energy is energy due to an object’s motion. When the roller coaster car climbs the hill, its gravitational energy increases as it moves farther from Earth’s surface. When the car descends, that gravitational energy is converted to kinetic energy as the car increases speed. Whenever the exchange between gravitational and kinetic energy happens, the roller coaster changes speed. When the energy exchange is especially rapid, passengers experience thrilling acceleration and g-forces! Loops and curves can also rapidly change the passengers’ velocity and provide strong g-forces and accelerations.

Provide students with images of the Flip Flap. Look at the design and invite students to describe the ride. What do they notice? Then, direct students to identify the points of gravitational potential energy and kinetic energy. What do students notice about the points of gravitational potential energy and kinetic energy?  How can they mirror similar points of gravitational potential energy and kinetic energy in their design?

Morey’s Piers Great Nor Easter Roller Coaster now known as Fly. Wildwood, New Jersey. Carol Highsmith, 2017. Note the teardrop shaped loop to the right of the image

The Flip Flap Railway was designed with a circular loop; however, many modern roller coasters, such as Morey’s Piers Great Nor Easter, have a teardrop loop. Encourage students to observe the design of roller coasters in the 1900s and compare them with modern day roller coasters. How does the design differ from modern roller coasters, such as Morey’s Piers Great Nor Easter, or coasters that students might have ridden? If time allows, students might select additional images from this gallery and identify differences in the points of potential and kinetic energy in each.

Motivate students to think about creating their own roller coasters. Ask students to consider points of gravitational potential energy and kinetic energy in their design along with loops and curves to add velocity and acceleration. How can they apply what they learned from studying and analyzing the images? Then, allow students to work in collaborative groups to construct their own roller coasters using a marble, foam tubing, masking tape, and a plastic cup.

Studying the role of science and engineering design at amusement parks helps students discover real-world applications. Besides a roller coaster, what other STEM connections could be made at an amusement park?

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