What do paper roller coasters have to do with learning?


The excitement is building again this year following the middle school competition which took place in November. The highest roller coaster built by middle schoolers at Blessed Maria Assunta Pollotta in Waterloo was over six feet tall! The longest run for a coaster, also built by the students from Blessed Maria Assunta Pollotta, took almost four minutes to complete from top to bottom!  

5…4…3…2…1! Hands up! The room fills with claps, hugs and high fives.  Is it a hockey game? A basketball game? A wrestling match? No, it is a Paper Roller Coaster competition. Wait, what?

For the past two years, teams of middle and high school students have come together in the fall to compete for the highest, longest and most exciting roller coaster.  The catch is the teams have only three hours to complete their roller coaster and it is built completely out of paper!

Long before the actual day of the competition, students across Central Rivers Area Education Agency (AEA) began the process of “practicing” for competition day. While the process and the competition looks like arts and crafts, in reality, teams learn a number of important skills. Not only are students immersed in a variety of physics concepts including momentum, friction, acceleration, potential energy and gravity, they also experience the engineering process.  The Iowa Core Science Standards include engineering standards where students identify the problem, design a solution, create a model, and evaluate the solution against the criteria in order to modify or adjust based on how well their model met the criteria. To be successful in the competition, teams have to utilize the engineering processing first, where they identify the requirements (how to get the most points), planned out their coaster, tested their model out, and make continual refinements.  Some team have even come to the competition with a blueprint of their roller coaster!

The competition also requires students to work together and take advantage of each other’s strengths.  Building a paper roller coaster in three hours is not a job for one person but requires teamwork. In our second year of the competition, we have seen teams who come in with a plan of attack that includes knowing who’s good at what.  For example, one would think folding pieces of paper would be the “easy” job. In reality, folding the components of the paper roller coaster takes an incredible amount of time and patience. Teams have found that it is important to have at least one person, if not two, who are really good at folding the components so they work properly.

Teams are judged on the following criteria:

  • Longest Run
  • Reliability
  • Use of elements (e.g. funnel, loops, stairs, half pipe)
  • Decoration/theme
  • Quality of Construction
  • Excitement
  • Presentation

The high school competition will be held on December 12th in our Central Rivers AEA office.

Kay Schmalen is a Consultant for Science with Central Rivers Area Education Agency. She can be reached at kschmalen@centralriversaea.org. Central Rivers AEA supports educators, parents, and the communities we serve as we work together toward one ultimate goal: to improve student learning. We provide support in the areas of quality classroom materials, curriculum planning, best practices in teaching and learning, safe and caring learning environment, appropriate educational opportunities for all learners, technology planning, professional learnin