Marble Roller Coaster Physics

Marble roller coaster physics teaches kids about some important basic principles including Newton’s Laws.  You need pipe insulation (a few bucks at any home improvement store), duct tape, and marbles.  We used about 3 lengths of the pipe insulation and had more than enough.

roller coaster

First, start by cutting your pipe insulation in half the long way.  Scissors or an exacto knife work well.

Don’t tell the kids how to do it.  Just provide various challenges.  For example, I challenged them to create a roller coaster with at least one loop and one turn that the marble got safely through.

They had to figure out how much rise (or FALL in our case) they needed over run to make the marble complete the loop.

We used books, baskets, duct tape – anything we had lying around that would help us craft a variety of cool tracks.

Some things to try:
1.  Change the height of the first hill. How does that change the speed of the marble at the bottom?
2.  Try to make a loop. What do you have to do so the marble makes the loop?
3.  Can you launch the marble off the end into a cup?
4.  Try making enclosed tube coasters (don’t cut the tube for these) versus open track ones.  How does this track difference compare?
5.  Now go crazy!  What other neat things can you have your coaster do?

Before we ever started ANY of this project we spent some time learning some basic physics principles. We learned Newton’s laws of motion (by doing this, this, and this) and the difference between potential and kinetic energy, as well as the principle of energy conservation.  If you don’t mind getting this song stuck in your head forevermore, watch this video about kinetic and potential energy…Ole!

Also have them watch this energy demonstration showing what happens to energy throughout the course of a roller coaster ride.  Ask them to point out the points on their coasters with the greatest amounts of potential and kinetic energy.

Next time you go to an amusement park you’ll be looking at it in a whole new way – through a physicist’s eyes!

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