#thattech Week 4–Roller Coasters

Looking back on my primary and secondary education (in the 90’s), nothing stood out as an exceptional classroom environment that I would want to model in my own professional setting.  I recall unnecessary amounts of lecturing, lengthy video features and un-collaborative work environments.  It was almost as if student collaboration was considered a form of cheating to learn knowledge from the teacher’s perspective.  Don Tapscott points out, “Students need to talk among themselves.  In fact, research has found collaborative learning to be more effective in increasing academic performance” (Tapsott, 2008).  I promote student collaboration in every aspect of my classroom excluding completion of summative assessments.  Not only do the students gain more knowledge, they become more confident in their schoolwork.

Tapscott notes, “It’s not easy.  Letting kids discover for themselves involves a lot of up-front preparation on the part of the teacher” (Tapscott, 2008).  I often overwhelm myself trying to find the newest and most engaging activities for my students.  Some days I’m very successful, and others I hit major roadblocks.  To help reduce this exhaustion I turn to mentors as well as fellow teachers for advice.  These are the people I look up to and whom I want to model my classroom after.  With this, collaboration turns out to be strategic in my individual success.

With our school year finally coming to an end, we always take our entire 8th grade class (500 students) to Busch Gardens, in Williamsburg, VA just an hour bus ride away.  They so look forward to this final fieldtrip before their sendoff to high school.  With the theme park in mind, I found a lesson that, although geared for grades 3-5, was technology-based and exemplified the values and methodologies of digital age learners.  The lesson is called Competing Coasters and gives students a chance to explore, predict, and investigate the roller coaster features of speed, height, length and duration.  Students use the website www.joyrides.com to make predictions solely based off pictures of roller coasters and then record their results in a table-like graphic organizer.  Once their predictions are complete, they go to www.rcdb.com which is a statistical roller coaster database for many roller coasters around the world.  Here they verify their predictions and evaluate their estimating abilities.

This lesson is suiting for today’s students because it touches on many aspects of 21st century learning.  Students work collaboratively as they investigate rollercoasters based on pictures alone.  It seems as though students love pictures, especially images of activities they wish to take part in themselves.  Another skill addressed is their critical thinking and data analysis, as they reason through their collection and examination process.  Following these steps, students must use and defend their thinking with factual knowledge gained through their research.  This lesson demonstrates a good balance between mastering objectives with appropriate integration of technology assisting in the process.

John Palfrey and Urs Gasser noted that “we should figure out, instead, how the use of technologies can support our pedagogical goals” (Palfrey & Gasser, 2010).  The lesson on roller coasters demonstrates just that.  It keeps students on the edge of their seat by having them research a topic which has them hooked for the entire duration of the lesson.  Any student who has been on a roller coaster absolutely loves to talk about them, and so do adults for that matter.  It’s a unique experience for any thrill seeker.  In Palfrey and Gasser’s final thoughts in chapter 11, they make a good remark with respect to transforming the change to better educate digital age students. “The hard part, during the transition, will be to discern what to preserve about traditional education and what to replace with new, digitally mediated processes and tools” (Palfrey & Gasser, 2010).  It seems evident the content may not change a whole lot, but how and why it’s delivered will make the difference.


Illuminations. (n.d.) Competing Coasters. Retrieved from http://illuminations.nctm.org/Lesson.aspx?id=924 on May 31, 2014.

Palfrey, J., & Gasser, U. (2010). Born Digital : Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Tapscott, D. (2008). Grown up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World. New York: McGraw-Hill.


7 thoughts on “#thattech Week 4–Roller Coasters

  1. It can be very overwhelming to try and find the newest and most engaging activities and it often takes many after school hours to prep, but it’s so amazing when those activities pay off. Thanks for sharing your lesson. I have been reading about Project Based Learning (PBL) and your lesson is exactly what I have been reading about, it uses real world situations, collaboration among students, and active and engaging learning. According to an article by Edutopia staff, “Because students are evaluated on the basis of their projects, rather than on the comparatively narrow rubrics defined by exams, essays, and written reports, assessment of project-based work is often more meaningful to them.”

    Edutopia staff. (2008, February 28). Why teach with project-based learning?: Providing students with a well-rounded classroom experience. Retrieved June 11, 2014 from http://www.edutopia.org/project-learning-introduction

  2. That sounds like a great unit. Your first link should come with a warning label that I will spend way too much time looking at roller coasters. The second link is spelled wrong and sends you somewhere interesting but odd. Fortunately, using the secretly coded clues in your blog, I deduced that the letters should stand for “roller coaster data base”. So I rearranged them and presto! I’m in the right place. This is a great lesson for physics and could be extended for higher level students. Data about the coaster heights could be used to estimate train velocity at different points on a hill and a there could be discussion of energy transformation from potential to kinetic and back.

  3. Your roller coaster project sounds like a fantastic way to integrate technology, engage your kids, and make their trip to Busch Gardens even more memorable. Many of your kids will remember the activity for years and will never look at a roller coaster the same way again. You may have ignited some engineering passion in a few of your students. It’s encouraging to hear how teachers bring interesting ideas into their classrooms. All of us can relate to having days full of good ideas and others where the ideas just don’t materialize. What matters is that we keep trying. It definitely helps having other teachers to collaborate with. Thanks for sharing your idea.

    If you’d like to spend even more time playing with roller coaster activities, go to the following website. http://www.brainpop.com/games/coastercreator/
    It’s a very simple game but it’s good for a little creative fun.

  4. Your comment, “content may not change a whole lot, but how and why it’s delivered will make the difference,” is true, but I think content already has changed a lot (and will continue to change), especially when you consider the ubiquity of certain tools. Take Scott’s blog post, for example–he talks about the days before calculators and graphing tools. Now that tools for those tasks are universal, teachers are probably spending a lot less time teaching “math facts” and “how to graph” and spending more time on how to apply the basic math facts and graphing skills to real-life situations (hopefully). Social studies teachers probably don’t teach nearly as many level 1 facts (Bloom’s level, that is) and instead focus more on how those facts relate to our lives and how the knowledge can be integrated into other fields of social studies (i.e. learning the evolution of a place name and how that reflects changes in culture over time). English teachers don’t really have to teach source citation anymore–they just show kids how to use easybib.com. We don’t teach how to search with the Dewey decimal system, we teach Google skills, and so on. So some of the content is changing, and it is mostly because of the “why” we learn it. When we have tools that automatically include most of our lower-level knowledge, we can spend more time using that knowledge in higher-order applications. Why? Because that’s what we have to do in real life, as professionals. I’m glad that our education system has taken this direction (well, most teachers have).

  5. It seems that my high school experience was similar to yours. Many of my classes were just a big long lectures. But…I did have one pair of teachers that really made an impression on me. Those teachers taught a class called “American Dream.” They team taught this class as a combination of history and American literature. They were big believers in collaboration between themselves and amongst the students. Many of the class work and projects were group projects. They were amazing teachers!

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