The vertical motion of an object falling at a constant acceleration can be modeled by the equation:
h = ‑16t2 + v0t + s
|h = height after the object has been dropped (feet)|
|s = initial height (feet)|
|v0 = initial velocity (feet per second) |
|t = time in motion (seconds)|
This lesson uses that equation to explore the mathematics of roller coasters. In particular, the lesson has three parts:
- Coaster Track – As an introduction, students use
the equation above to determine the height of the coaster at various
times and use this information to calculate average velocity.
- Match the Thrill – Students then match the results obtained from the equation with possible graphs.
- Dream Scream Machine – Finally, students use what they've learned to design their own roller coaster.
To simplify the physics, we will assume that the coaster comes to a
complete stop before falling and that the train is dropping from the
coaster's highest point. For this activity, the equation will be
h = ‑16t2+ s
To begin the main portion of the lesson, ask students to share their
personal experiences with roller coasters. Continue the momentum with
some facts and figures about roller coasters. Videos can induce a lot
of excitement, so you may need to be prepared to refocus the class.
Ask, "How do you think roller coasters and math are related?" [There
will be a variety of student responses, such as numbers, speed, height,
and formulas.] Segue this discussion into the idea that engineers use
functions like h = ‑16t2+ s to determine the coaster's height above ground after a certain amount of time.
Distribute the Coaster Track activity sheet and read through the introduction emphasizing the variables and what they represent.
- h is the height above ground.
- t is the time in seconds that the train has been dropping.
Students can work independently or in pairs to find the height of
the roller coaster at different times by substituting values of t into the function. While evaluating the function, many students multiply ‑16 by t before evaluating t2.
Review the order of operations by completing the first row of the data
table together. Ask, "How will you know when the coaster has reached
the bottom of the drop?" [The height above ground will be 0 feet.]
As students finish the table, discuss the answers. If necessary,
conduct an error analysis, having students who disagree put their work
on the board. Ask students to point out errors and guide them toward
the correct answer. Anticipate the most discrepancies in the second
row. Typical responses are 384 (correct), and 144, which is 400 – 162.
Read the rest of the activity sheet as a class. For Question 6,
review the symbol Δ (delta). Delta is a Greek letter that
mathematicians use to represent difference or change. This means that Δh is the change in height from the start to the end of the coaster, and Δt represents the change in time from start to finish.
Allow students to complete the activity sheet at their own pace.
Groups who understand the concept can continue as each part of the
assignment gets more challenging, while you circulate to help groups
that are struggling. When students finish Coaster Track, check their
work and have them move on to Match the Thrill.
Match the Thrill
Distribute the Match the Thrill
activity sheet. Students will call on their knowledge from the Coaster
Track activity to complete the data table in the Match the Thrill
activity sheet. Students are to assist the engineers by finding the
graph that matches the function h = 256 – 16t2
to determine when the Hurricane reaches bottom. They will need to
compare the data they collected from the function to each graph's data.
Student must estimate the coordinates in graphs B and C. They will
choose the graph that is the closest representation of their data table
from Question 1. If students are struggling, lead a small group
discussion including the following questions.
"How long does it take the Hurrican to reach the bottom?"
Are there any graphs that can be eliminated?
[Yes, Coaster A. It takes 5 seconds to reach the bottom.]
What is the height of the Hurricane at the start?
Which graph starts at a height closest to 256 feet?
How do you know?
[When x = 0, y ≈ 256.]
Dream Scream Machine
Distribute the Dream Scream Machine
activity sheet. This activity will be done individually so each student
is held accountable for providing his/her own work. Because students
had the option to work in pairs before, you may have to monitor the
students by walking around to help the students who are struggling when
working on their own.
Each student will create a roller coaster, specifying the highest
drop. Some students will want their coasters to have exaggerated
heights like 1,000,000 feet, but stress that they are creating coasters
that could actually exist. Students will draw and name their roller
coaster. They will also use a table and graph to determine how long it
takes the coaster to reach the bottom of the drop.
Some students may have trouble recognizing that their equation will
look similar to the ones they have used in the first and second
activity sheet. Explain that the number from Question 1 is s, the initial height. All they have to do is substitute the s into the equation. Ask them if they know the values of t and h. [No, students will not know the exact values, because h and t are variables in the equation.]
Because the time it takes the coaster to reach the bottom will not
be an integer, students may have a negative value for the height. Guide
students to understand that the coaster reaches the bottom of the drop
between two consecutive integers. Ask, "What does it mean to have a
negative height?" [It would mean that the roller coaster traveled below
ground, which can't happen. This is a situation when the mathematical
equation gives a numerical answer that does not exactly match real
life.] If students do not understand that the time to reach the bottom
will be a decimal, ask, "Is the amount of time to reach the bottom of
the drop a whole number?" [No.] You might also ask, "How do you know
what the time will be?" [It will be a decimal. It would have to be
between the two last two input values from the data table.] Suggest
that students try substituting a value that is between the two
consecutive integers. The students should substitute decimal values for
t until value of h is close to zero.
Randomly select several students to present their coasters from the
Dream Scream Machine activity sheet. They should discuss the height of
the tallest drop and explain how long the coaster takes to reach the
The Coaster Track and Match the Thrill
answer keys contains answers to the questions that appear on the first
two activity sheets. (An answer key is not provided for the Dream
Scream Machine activity sheet since all answers are based on student