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052112-1 This year Memorial Day falls on May 28. It was established as the day to remember those who have given their lives in service to our country. It is also the day amusement parks across the country open their doors for the summer season.

Every year, thousands of eager riders stand in line for the chance to experience the thrill of a roller coaster ride. (Or not, depending on your stomach’s response to loops and multimple inversions.) In our daily lives, gravity is a wonderful thing. It keeps us grounded. It allows us to walk up-right and not float away. On a roller coaster ride, we feel pushes, pulls, and loops at gravity-defying speeds. Roller coaster rides are exhilarating, in part because they are so unnatural. On a roller coaster, we experience intense, new sensations.

But how is it that we are able to remain in the roller coaster when it is at the apex of a loop and we are upside down? How does a car holding fifty people manage to make it around a loop and to the heights of a hill? What forces are at work? How do engineers design roller coasters? What was the first roller coaster like?  What super thrills will future roller coasters have? How do we know they are safe?

This week, celebrate Memorial Day by remembering those who have served our country, and by learning about roller coaster physics.

The Forces Behind the Fun 

052112-2 Pressure, force, friction, velocity. What are they laws of motion and how do they affect roller coasters? To answer these questions, begin at HowStuffWorks.com. Watch a brief video to familiarize yourself with the parts and types of roller coasters. Why do you expect a coaster does not need an engine? Read about the physics behind roller coasters. Keep reading to learn about gravity, acceleration, loop-dee-loops, and safety tips. Try your hand at a roller coaster quiz.

Visit the BBC to experiment with forces and friction. Begin by reading about forces. Then, play a game using your knowledge of resistance, forces, and gravity. Record your observations during this and the next activity. How do these activities or your observations apply to roller coasters? Demonstrate your prowess by taking a quiz. Having mastered forces, move on to friction. Read about friction and ways to control it. Play with friction.  Prove your mastery by passing a friction quiz.

Younger students especially may enjoy the activity Forces in Action. Under what conditions will the truck travel the furthest? Experiment with weights and gradient to discover the answer. Record your findings on the table. How do these results apply to roller coasters? When you have finished the series of activities, take the quiz.052112-3

Annenberg Media also helps to explain the forces behind the fun. Select the Flash version and enter the interactive amusement park. Manuever around the park map until you find the popcorn cart. Click on this to learn about Newton’s Laws of Motion. Find the pendulum and read why some people get sick on rides (found under the main screen.) Visit the Free Fall and the Pendulum to learn about the sensations of free fall and weightlessness. Explain the connections between weightlessness, free fall, and roller coasters.

Return to the park map. This time, visit the Roller Coaster to learn how a roller coaster works, and the differences between a wooden and a steel coaster. Do not pass up the opportunity to design a coaster. Jot down the choices you make and sketch your roller coaster. If your coaster does not pass the safety tests, record why your coaster fails and try again. Finally, visit the safety hub. Interested in how the carousel or the bumper cars work? Stop by those rides as you leave the park.


The thrill of multiple loops, air time, and corkscrews. Nothing is quite so thrilling as a roller coaster ride. Introduced in 2008 at Hershey Park in Pennsylvania, Fahrenheit features one of the most intense roller coaster drops in the world.  Popular Mechanics takes you to Fahrenheit. Watch their video to see this one-of-a-kind roller coaster and to learn a bit about the safety tests required before riders were allowed to strap in.

What could be more exhilerating than weightlessness, extreme speed, and inversions? Wild wing coasters. They are this summer’s roller coaster innovation. Learn what wild wing coasters are, and how they promise to ratchet up the thrill, or the terror, depending on your perspective.

How does this new feat fit into the history of roller coasters? Finally, view the AreaVibes infographic of roller coaster history, Highs and Lows. What do you envision for roller coasters of the future?