Design Your Own Roller Coaster with Paper and Tape


Have you ever experienced the thrill of riding a roller coaster? Imagine being able to design and build your very own coaster! While there are expensive toys and video games that offer this opportunity, we have a unique project for you. In this project, you will create a roller coaster using just paper and tape. Along the way, you will also learn about the fascinating physics behind roller coasters.


What Happened?

If you constructed your coaster with a sufficiently high starting hill, and ensured that the curves and loops were gradual, your marble should have successfully reached the end. However, if your coaster had sharp turns or corners, the marble may have become stuck. Additionally, attempting to guide the marble up a hill or through a loop taller than the starting hill would have caused it to not make it through. Why does this happen? The answer lies in understanding the concept of energy! Check out the “Digging Deeper” section to delve into the physics principles that govern roller coasters.

Digging Deeper

Roller coasters are an embodiment of physics! Unlike cars or trains, roller coasters do not rely on engines to move along the track. Instead, they depend on gravitational potential energy*, obtained by being initially towed up a large hill. Potential energy is essentially stored due to the elevation or height off the ground. When the coaster begins its descent down the hill, the potential energy converts into kinetic energy, the energy of motion. As the coaster ascends another hill, it loses kinetic energy (slows down) and regains potential energy. A portion of the energy is also transformed into heat due to air resistance and friction with the track, causing the coaster to gradually decelerate. This energy conversion continues as the coaster traverses loops, hills, and turns until it returns to the starting point.

Due to the principle of energy conservation (the total energy within a system must remain constant), the combined kinetic energy and energy lost due to friction can never surpass the initial potential energy of the coaster. Consequently, coaster designers must ensure that the coaster possesses adequate initial potential energy to complete the entire track. This imposes constraints on the design. For instance, the coaster cannot navigate a loop or ascend a hill taller than the starting hill since it would require more energy than it possesses. If the track is excessively long, friction may eventually cause the coaster to halt completely.

When constructing a successful paper coaster, you had to account for these factors. Ensuring that your starting hill was taller than any other hills or loops was vital due to energy losses from friction. If your coaster featured elongated flat segments, the marble might have stopped due to friction. Therefore, it was necessary to guarantee that your marble possessed enough potential energy to complete the entire track. If you encountered difficulties, consider revising and increasing the height of your starting hill.

*Note: While there are various types of potential energy, such as elastic potential energy (the energy obtained when stretching a rubber band), we focus solely on gravitational potential energy in this project.

For Further Exploration

  • Instead of using paper, you can construct roller coasters using foam pipe insulation, available at hardware stores. This approach allows for the creation of larger coasters in less time, as it involves less cutting, folding, and taping. Check out the “Additional Resources” section for examples.

Related Resources

Project Ideas


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