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Energy in a Roller Coaster Ride

Sixth Grade – Unit 1: Matter and Energy

Lesson adaptation by David Grams gramsd@glenlake.k12.mi.us
*This lesson was adapted from a lesson from The Teachers' Domain Open Educational Science Resources Collection 2007,
a collaborative production of WGBH Educational Productions, the WGBH Media Library, and WGBH Interactive, with
major funding provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Primary: Understand that objects in motion have kinetic energy and that objects
have potential energy due to their relative positions. Energy may be changed from
one form to another, but the amount of energy stays the same. (P.EN.06.11)

The law of conservation of energy states that within a closed system, energy can
change form, but it cannot be created or destroyed. In other words, the total
amount of energy remains constant. On a roller coaster, energy changes from
potential to kinetic energy and back again many times over the course of a ride.

Kinetic energy is energy that an object has as a result of its motion. All moving
objects possess kinetic energy, which is determined by the mass and speed of the
object. Potential energy is the energy an object has as a result of its position.
Potential energy is stored energy that has not yet been released. Gravitational
potential energy is potential energy that results from an object's position in a
gravitational field, and is equal to the object's weight multiplied by its height.

For most roller coasters, the gravitational potential energy of the cars at the peak
of the first hill determines the total amount of energy that is available for the rest of
the ride. Traditionally, the coaster cars are pulled up the first hill by a chain; as the
cars climb, they gain potential energy. At the top of the hill, the cars have a great
deal of gravitational potential energy, equal to the cars' weight multiplied by the
height of the hill. When the cars are released from the chain and begin coasting
down the hill, potential energy transforms into kinetic energy until they reach the
bottom of the hill. As the cars ascend the next hill, some kinetic energy is
transformed back into potential energy. Then, when the cars descend this hill,
potential energy is again changed to kinetic energy. This conversion between
potential and kinetic energy continues throughout the ride.

In reality, the conversion between potential and kinetic energy (both are forms of
mechanical energy) is not perfect. The force of friction acts on the moving cars,
decreasing the total amount of mechanical energy in the system. The mechanical
energy is not lost, however. It is transformed into thermal energy, which can be
detected as an increase in the temperature of the roller coaster's track and car
wheels. Because of friction between the coaster cars and the track (not to mention
air resistance as the cars move forward at great speed), the amount of mechanical
energy available decreases throughout the ride, and that is why the first hill of a
roller coaster must always be the tallest.
Energy transfer
Potential energy (gravitational)
Kinetic energy

* Bowling ball
* Marbles
* Tape
* Foam tubes for insulating ¾-1” water pipes, cut lengthwise in half (or)
* Poster board cut into approximately 18” x 4” strips
* Access to a data projector, computer, & Internet access

1) Have students read the Student Handout (Energy) at the end of this document.
2) Ask students to explain the difference between potential and kinetic energy.
2) Reinforce this difference by citing the example of someone standing at the top
of a hill with their sled. Ask students where kinetic and potential energy are at their
3) Further reinforce the concept that potential energy increases as an object is
moved higher ask a student volunteer to cup their hands then drop the bowling ball
into their hands from a distance of approximately 1”. Ask a second “brave”
volunteer if they would be willing to catch the bowling ball, but this time raise the
ball as high as you can above the students cupped hands. (But don’t drop it!)
Next, ask the class in which position did the ball have more potential energy and
why. Students could discuss with a neighbor how they could test this hypothesis.
4) Ask students to think of at least one other example from everyday life where
potential energy is transformed into kinetic energy, or vice versa. Allow students
time to share their ideas among their peers then draw and label a diagram that
illustrates the transformation.
5) Have students explore gravitational potential energy and kinetic energy by
working in small groups to create their own rollercoaster using foam insulating
tubes that have been cut lengthwise in half or sections of poster board. In both
cases, tape can be used to attach overlapping sections. Examples of student-
made “roller coasters” are available on the Internet and on the Teacher’s Domain
website (Requires a free login).
6) When students are done have them draw a picture of their rollercoaster and
identify where each type of energy occurs. Remind students that the total energy
of the system as the sum of both the potential and kinetic energies.
7) If the necessary equipment is available, show students the roller coaster
interactive located on Teacher’s Domain website
8) Tell students that the pie chart represents the total amount of potential and
kinetic energy in the system. Ask them, “What are the cars doing as the section
representing kinetic energy increases in size?” Where is the potential energy
greatest and least?
9) Play the interactive, first at full speed, by clicking on the "play" button and
focusing on the graph depicting how the forms of energy change as the coaster
cars move along the track, and then in step form to view the motion in detail.
10) Discuss the interactive activity with students, reinforcing the concepts of kinetic
and potential energy. How do the predictions they made in their journals compare
with what the activity is showing them?
11) Optional: In real life, not all of the potential energy of the coaster cars is
converted to kinetic energy and back again; some mechanical energy is converted
to thermal energy. Ask students why all that follow the first hill of a roller coaster
are usually progressively smaller. Ask them if this is necessary? If energy wasn’t
“lost” where could it have gone? Describe how mechanical energy gets converted
to thermal energy along the track and the affects of friction. A good interactive
website that allows students to control these variables is

Use both the drawings of the roller coasters students create and discussions to
assess student learning.
(Student Handout)

What Is Energy?
What is always present but never visible? ENERGY! Energy is a difficult concept
to understand because it is not a concrete object that you can see or touch. To
understand what energy is, you must first understand what it does. That is,
although energy isn’t visible, you can detect evidence of energy. Jumping, moving
a wheelchair, eating, and singing all require energy. Nonliving things also use
energy—a clock, vacuum cleaner, and mechanical toys all require energy to move.
Work is involved whenever anything moves a distance, and energy is needed to
do work. Therefore, energy is defined as the ability to do work.

Much like mass or volume, energy is a property of an object. It’s just that energy is
more abstract than some other properties. Although energy itself isn’t visible, you
can detect evidence of energy.

Movement, sound, heat, and light provide evidence that energy is present and
being used.
Sound is produced when we strike something. But does sound do work? Yes,
sound can move things. Sound waves move the tiny bones in your ears and shake
windows when a loud truck passes by. Sound waves are also evident in the
vibrations from playing a radio.

Our body is working even when it appears to be still. Breathing, blinking, and
digesting food all require energy. For us to do these activities, our bodies burn the
energy in food. We know this is happening because we feel warm (burning
generates thermal energy, or heat). Therefore, heat is evidence that energy is
being used.

If energy is the ability to do work, how does thermal energy fit into this definition?
Thermal energy can melt an ice cube or make water boil. Therefore, the definition
of energy can be amended to energy is the ability to do work or to organize or
change matter.

Light is another observable form of energy. Light can change things. When light
shines on your arm, it makes it feel warm. When light shines on a green plant, the
plant can make food. Since energy is a property of matter, scientists have
discovered ways to measure and quantify energy. Measuring energy helps to
understand how it is used, how it changes forms, and how to increase energy
Two Main Forms of Energy
In strict scientific terms, energy is classified into two main forms: kinetic and
potential energy. Kinetic energy is defined as the energy of a moving object. A
thrown football, a speeding automobile, a waterfall, or a rock falling from a cliff is
examples of objects that have kinetic energy.

Potential energy appears in many different forms, and is defined as the energy in
matter due to its position or the arrangement of its parts. The various forms of
potential energy include gravitational potential energy, elastic potential energy,
chemical potential energy, and electrical potential energy.

Potential Energy is often referred to as stored energy. Some scientists avoid the
use of the word “stored” because it inaccurately depicts energy as a substance
that is contained within a substance. In other words, some scientists and energy
educators believe saying energy is “stored” is a misconception.

When something is lifted or suspended in air, work is done on the object against
the pull of gravity. This work is converted to a form of potential energy called
gravitational potential energy. When the item succumbs to the force of gravity,
falling towards Earth like an apple from a tree, it converts potential energy into
kinetic energy.