Putting Physics to Work in the Classroom (Part 1 of 2)

Tami Bowlden has worked in education for 17 years. Based in Idaho, she has been a classroom teacher (5th-8th grades), and an Educational Technology specialist, has worked in professional development and curriculum design, and currently works for Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA). She holds an endorsement in Gifted and Talented education and a Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction. She is passionate about helping teachers to meet students where they are and to plan creative, engaging, differentiated lessons and activities for students that challenge them and give them choices about their own learning. She blogs and shares ideas and materials at For the Teachers, a Teach 100 blog.

Check out Part 2 of Tami's awesome post on making STEM Education fun, STEM Ideas and Activities for the Classroom!

My 7th grade students started with a pile of foam tubing cut along the cross-section, wooden dowels, a bag of marbles and many rolls of tape. Their task: Create a roller coaster track on which a marble could travel from one end to the other.

Working in teams over the course of four weeks, we learned about the laws and properties of physics: forces, friction, speed, momentum. For each, the students modified or added to their roller coaster to demonstrate that particular law or property.

To demonstrate friction, some students lined the foam tube with plastic wrap to reduce friction and make the marble go faster. Others used tissue to increase friction and slow the marble down.

To demonstrate Newton’s 2nd Law of Motion (acceleration of an object depends on the force exerted on the object) one group placed a golf ball along their track and attempted to get the marble moving with enough speed to push the golf ball down the next incline. More often, the marble bounced off the golf ball and went flying through the air – Newton’s laws at work!

To demonstrate centripetal force – the motion along a curve that pushes an object inward – most of the students created a loop. This was the most challenging part for most of the groups. They needed enough of a drop before the loop to build up the speed necessary to have enough force for the marble to complete the loop, which had to be just the right size and pitch.

To generate ideas and understand how roller coasters work, we researched the largest and most popular in the world. We watched a series of “point of view” roller coaster videos, filmed with a camera at the front of the coaster car as it travels along the track. Watching these felt surprisingly like riding the real thing, enough to cause some queasy stomachs and to inspire some bigger drops and dips for the marbles to enjoy.

Students loved this project because it was fun. They got to work together and be creative. I loved it because they were actively engaged in their learning. They developed an understanding of some complicated concepts and learned some difficult vocabulary by using the words and ideas in context, daily. They learned how it all worked because they had to figure out how to make it happen.

Continue reading to learn how to put physics to work with these great STEM Ideas and Activities for the Classroom!

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