My left-field lesson - A white-knuckle ride

The excitement of roller coasters keeps children gripped in science

I've always loved amusement parks, but had never found a way of combining this passion with my passion for teaching.

Earlier this year, however, when I was planning my scheme of work for the upcoming academic cycle, an idea suddenly struck me. And it was one that has enriched the way my 3rd-grade pupils (aged 8-9) think and learn about science.

To help children understand complicated concepts, I always try to relate my lessons to real life. When I was planning lessons on force and interaction, therefore, I started thinking about roller coasters and the science involved in building them. I realised that the rides would be a perfect focus for lessons - they would not only engage and excite pupils but would also clearly demonstrate the scientific concepts that the children were learning.

I started by sending a legion of emails to people in the amusement park industry, asking if anyone was available to make a presentation to my class. Evan Souliere, a design engineer at Great Coasters International, replied and it turned out that he had designed one of our local roller coasters, Timber Wolf at World of Fun, here in Kansas City. Evan kindly agreed to call my class on Skype, to explain the science behind the building of roller coasters.

Then I introduced the main activity of the lesson: a handson exercise in which the children were to build their own mini roller coasters. After some research, I found that pipe insulation was the best raw material from which to build these little rides: it is relatively cheap, malleable and can be bought in bulk from almost any hardware store.

I also got hold of a few dozen marbles to serve as passengers, or test dummies. These were key to getting the children to experiment with the impact of force and interaction in roller-coaster design.

Learning peaks

It was immensely satisfying to see how much my pupils enjoyed the lesson. They had all ridden on roller coasters, so they were hugely excited about having the chance to engineer their own.

The lesson placed them in full control: they made their own discoveries, testing what worked and what didn't. Instead of following a model, they had the freedom to be creative and just build. And when something failed, the children worked together in small groups to fix the problem.

This creative approach proved much more effective at engaging the pupils than merely watching videos or completing worksheets on force and interaction. I was delighted to receive an award at the 2014 Kansas Regional Teacher of the Year Awards as a result of this lesson.

But the most important thing was that my students were able to remember what they had learned. They did - and that was my biggest success of all.

Brandi Leggett teaches 3rd grade at Prairie Ridge Elementary School in Shawnee, Kansas City. She was talking to Alfie Green

10 ways to use roller coasters in your lessons

1. Global riders

Use this data on theme parks around the world to teach pupils about mean and median - and, most importantly, which country has the fastest roller coaster.

2. Defying gravity

With this handy worksheet, challenge your pupils to design a roller coaster using their knowledge of energy changes.

3. All systems go

Guide younger students through the process of designing a roller coaster in this project on building the first lunar theme park.

4. Record rides

Bring some fun into your classroom with this set of cards containing facts and statistics on the world's largest roller coasters.

5. Take the plunge

Assess students' dramatic and reflective creative-writing skills in this activity. Children must describe the experience of riding a roller coaster.

6. Grand designs

Unlock your students' imaginations with this cross-curricular project on designing and building a fantasy theme park.

7. Conceptual coasters

This fun, team-based challenge allows children to work together to build a paper roller coaster for a marble to travel along.

8. Roller ratios

Children must use their knowledge of ratio and money-handling to complete this theme park investigation task.

9. Funfair flyers

In this fun theme-park activity, teach students about the presentation features of a leaflet and the styles of language used.

10. Operation thrill

Students learn about budgeting, scenario management and spreadsheets in this lesson on building your own theme park.

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