Physics for the Win

Central Rivers science consultants have been hosting the Paper Roller Coaster Challenge since 2017 and have been able to offer it in a rotation at all three of our office locations.  The intent of the Paper Roller Coaster Challenge is to engage students in scientific thinking and the engineering design process while experiencing many physics concepts in action.

During the competition, students must do all building on site and are not allowed to bring any pre-constructed elements for the paper roller coaster.  They are given only 3 hours to build their coaster and so many teams practice and plan together prior to arriving at the competition.

This year, the winning team for the high school division was the team from Waverly-Shell Rock. The 2019 team of Tyler Orman, Derek Brandt, Lee Seggerman, and Zac Birgen used some creative thinking, planning, and physics to secure the overall win and set the record for the longest run time.  The combined runtime for 3 trials was 393.59 seconds – almost twice as long as the next highest run time.  

When asked about their thought-process and design, the students told us, Our goal from the start was to design a Students looking at paper roller coastersystem that took as long as possible. While we were brainstorming we threw around the idea of creating a type of elevator that would carry the marble back to the top. After deciding that this would be very difficult to accomplish in the 3-hour, we started to design a system that would drop another marble once one reached the bottom.”

By doing this, the team created a system that took advantage of the rules – students are allowed to use multiple marbles but time is measured from the first marble into the system until the first marble reaches the end of the coaster. In order to maximize their time, their system removed marbles before they reached the end of the track released the next marble.

The students also were able to utilize their understanding of physics by considering the impacts of force, friction, and Group working on projectcenter of gravity on their design.  The students told us, “Force of impact and center of gravity had a big impact on our design. We knew from the start that the marble would need to hit the bottom cup with enough force to pull the paper high enough to release the next marble. To increase the force of impact, we changed the mass of the marbles and the distance that the marble fell before it hit the bucket. We also reduced the friction so the force of impact didn’t need to be as high. We did not plan on using the center of gravity but during the competition, we found that if the rollercoaster is partially off the table, the marble would shift the rollercoaster and shake the paper at the top. This made our release system more reliable because we weren’t relying on just the force of impact to release the next marble.”

Group picture of winning team


We were so excited to hear about students considering how physics applies to their paper roller coaster design and learning how students were able to use “Physics for the win.” Congratulations again to Waverly-Shell Rock and W-SR teachers Kim Ross (physics) and Beth Burrow (TAG) and thanks to students Tyler, Derek, Lee and Zac for sharing their thinking with us!