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Students find themselves on a roll

You probably remember sitting in your math class and thinking ‘when am I ever going to use this stuff again?’ Well, for the past few months Grade 7 and 8 students at Wellesley Public School got to experience physics and other mathematical properties first-hand when they were given the task of building a rollercoaster as part of an extra-curricular program in their school called Mathletes.

The project was part of the annual WonderCoaster Contest held by Canada’s Wonderland, and this year three of those Wellesley students – Grade 7 students Nathan Green and Jaden Pretorius and Grade 8 student Sawyer Grubb – finished second overall for technical merit at the finals held at the theme park north of Toronto on May 11.

It is the first time that any students from the school have placed at the competition in the four years they’ve been attending, and the teachers organizing the event say the contest is a valuable teaching tool that they can use to take learning beyond the classroom and into a real-world setting. A marble was used to simulate the cars of a rollercoaster.

“It meets the Grade 7 and 8 science curriculum; Grade 7 looked at the structures unit and Grade 8 looked at the systems at work unit. There is a lot of physics involved in it,” said Grade 7/8 teacher Rhonda Hergott, adding that even when elements of the students’ construction failed it continued to provide valuable life skills.

“It’s a really good life-lesson for them that it doesn’t always work out right away, you have to go back and re-examine your plan and recreate your plan and move forward from there.”

“The elements and principles of designs are all thoroughly covered in the activities they were working on,” added Grade 7/8 teacher Debbie Moore. “I’m always so fascinated by what the kids can come up with and the originality of each of them. There were no crossovers or similarity in their ideas.”

The competition was broken down into three categories: technical merit (the rollercoaster that is determined by the judges to record the highest score according to the technical merit calculation), creativity and artistic value (the rollercoaster that is, in the opinion of the judges, the most creative and makes the best use of available materials), and the most exciting to ride (judged by engineers who helped construct the park’s newest ride, Leviathan).

There was also a long list of rules, including size restrictions of 30 cm x 90 cm x 80 cm; magnets and other forms of energy were not permitted; the marble had to be between 1.3 cm and 2.5 cm in diameter; each team needed a minimum of two members and a maximum of four; and the marble must complete one of three test runs in order to be counted by the judges.

Scoring was based on a score for the vertical drop (maximum of 80 cm), the total time it took for the marble to complete its ride, the number of loops, and the loop diameter. In total the boys collected a score of 647,920 for their rollercoaster to take second place.

“The thing I really liked about this project was the boys got to use tools they had never used before,” said Jaden’s mother, Jeanette. “You start out with big ideas, but then they started doing it and it was way too hard to do all their ideas. We went to the thrift store and got all kinds of funky things, but it was just too much. “

She was also impressed with how the three boys – who sometimes struggle in school – could work together and make such a successful design.

“I told them I think it needed more loops, and they told me ‘We’re the committee and we think we have enough.’”

In total the boys’ coaster ride has seven loops and lasts 13 seconds, and their theme for the project is of the popular television show “Wipeout” which forces contestants to navigate a series of obstacle courses to determine a winner.
“It has wood, plastic tubing, pins, hot glue, paper towel roll, spice tray, two napkin holders, and a CD holder,” said Jaden, adding it was a serious case of trial-and-error to get the pieces to fit together and not have the marble gain too much speed and fly off the track, or not have enough speed to make it through to the end.

In total it took about five weeks for them to build the rollercoaster, meeting a couple nights a week on their own time to get it done.

Originally, the top four teams from Wellesley were slated to compete at Wonderland on May 11 but a mix-up with the buses that day meant there were none  available to take students to the park. Luckily, Jeanette was able to take the day off work and drive the three boys to Wonderland to compete.

The other student’s efforts won’t be wasted, though, as they all travelled back to Wonderland Thursday to listen to the engineers of the Leviathan give a talk on all the work that goes into designing a real rollercoaster.

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