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Amusement Park Doubles as Physics Lab for Normandy Eighth Graders

ST. PETERS, MO. -- When gifted students in the Normandy Schools Collaborative went to an amusement park last month, it wasn’t the just for the rides and funnel cakes.

     For the third consecutive year, eighth graders in the Normandy Gifted and Talented Education (G.A.T.E.) program participated in the Six Flags Physics Day, an event where students use engineering design principles to analyze how physics is used in the operation of roller coasters.

     The Six Flags trip is the culminating activity for the G.A.T.E. students’ study of physics and engineering design.

     “The students ride the roller coasters and using the principles they have studied in class, they figure out which roller coaster is the fastest, and what are the coasters’ different speeds,” said Vivian Johnson, GATE teacher at the Normandy 7th-8th Grade Center. “Based on that data, the students then make their calculations and graph their findings.”

     Through the project, JaRae Cole, 8th grader at Normandy 7th-8th Grade Center, realized the difficulty in designing roller coasters. “It takes a lot of effort to design and construct roller coasters,” Cole said. “There is a lot of hard work and energy put into making them.”

     The Six Flags Physics Day draws high school students from throughout the metro area. However, the Normandy students are usually the only middle school students attending the event, Johnson remarked.

     Earlier this year, GATE students in grades 4 through 8 participated in the From Roller Skates to Roller Coasters event at Great Skate in St. Peters, Mo. At the event they used roller skates to study physics theories of motion, acceleration and speed.

     “The activities are part of our STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) unit, which included our eighth graders constructing a hydraulic robotic arm and designing their own roller coasters,” said Vivian Johnson.

     “The students follow the engineering design process where they design and build the projects. They ask questions, make modifications, then re-design the project to improve the overall design and function.”

     Prior to going to the April Six Flags outing, the eighth graders built their own roller coasters in class using cardstock paper and marbles. The materials are basic, but they provide an opportunity for the students to learn foundational physics concepts like acceleration, speed, and motion.

 girl working on roller coaster project    “The students basically start from scratch,” Johnson explained. “They create each part (of the roller coaster), then begin putting the parts together. They study different roller coaster designs and techniques then come up with their own designs.”

     Johnson, an educator with more than 20 years with Normandy, seeks out experiences like these for her students. The activities help students make the connection between the theory and how these theories are applied in various situations and products.

     “The roller coaster and skate projects are more experiential and allow students to have a deeper engagement with the subject matter,” she said. “Projects like these allow students to use their natural creativity and ingenuity to create and improve their own designs.”

     Jaiden Davis, also in the 8th grade, sees the connection this project has with his future plans.

     “I would also like to do something in the arts,” Davis said. “Building the roller coaster was difficult! I had to use so many support beams for the frame. But this project connected the two. I was still able to be creative.”

CAPTION #1: JaRae Cole, an 8th grader in the Normandy Schools Collaborative, works on her model of a roller coaster. The class project culminated with the Six Flags Physics Day where students from throughout the metro area studied engineering design and how it relates to roller coasters.

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