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Young engineers turn paper into a wild ride

STEM students design and 3D-print their own roller coasters

Kenowa Hills — Middle school STEM Academy students recently went on a wild ride designing and building laser-cut paper roller coasters.

Small groups of students used computer-aided design (CAD) software to create paper templates for the different pieces of their coasters.

Computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) software then communicated with a laser cutter to score the pieces of paper so the students could fold them into different track pieces. Each coaster had to support a marble rolling down the entire length of the track. 

Eighth-grade duo Emerson Bergman and Madison Wetter printed and laser cut extra pieces before the showcase, in case they needed to make any last-minute repairs to their roller coaster, which was inspired by the Disney movie, “Lilo and Stitch.” 

“We had to use straight and curved pieces for the track and have at least one loop,” Madison said. “We also used some more complicated track pieces, like the zig-zag, stairs and jump. We could include more advanced parts for extra points on the project.”

Another trio of eighth-graders explained how they learned to calculate the kinetic and potential energy involved in their structure:

“When we put the marble at the top of the track, it has the most potential energy,” Jillian Carpenter said. “It turns into kinetic energy as it’s going through the track.” 

Kenowa Hills STEM Academy teacher Joanna Haines said the STEM students applied what they learned from their test earlier that week to their showcase project.

“Students had to measure velocity using their marbles and photogates on a test track,” Haines said. “When they knew the mass of the marble and its velocity, they could calculate the kinetic energy.”

Haines also said each group’s marble had to take at least 15 seconds to complete the entire track. The longest rolling time was 57 seconds, achieved by a team that 3D-printed a Batmobile for their Batman-themed coaster. 

From left, eighth-graders Blake Fulkerson, Noah Hauk and Dominic Patton named their paper roller coaster after Batman’s Batcave

Jillian and her group-mates agreed they made a lot of mistakes, used a lot of tape and learned how to work together during the project. 

“We had to talk to each other and work together as a group to problem-solve,” Jillian said. “We would fight, but in the end, we came together and it works!”

Haines added: “What I love the most about this class is the employability skills students learn. It teaches them that you’re not always going to get to work with people you like in the real world and you’ve got to make it work to get the project done.”

Read more from Kenowa Hills: 
Students inspired by Barbie, Harry Potter in STEM projects
Egg pilots teach aerodynamics on football field

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter covering Byron Center, Caledonia, Godfrey-Lee, Kenowa Hills and Thornapple Kellogg. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News, covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry, before finding her calling in education reporting and landing at SNN. Alexis is also the author of a poetry chapbook, “Learning to Sleep in the Middle of the Bed.”


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