Monday morning, 40 minutes before school starts. The hallways were silent. The classrooms were empty. The building was peaceful– except for the hall upstairs outside of the physics room. There, most of the AP Physics C students stood, chatting nervously, rehearsing presentations, pushing ball bearings onto model roller coasters and hoping they wouldn’t fall off the track on corkscrews and banked curves.
Today was roller coaster day.
AP Physics C is possibly the hardest science course my school offers. It’s also my favorite class. Every now and then, we have engineering projects to complete– the first was building a trebuchet, and the second was designing and building a model roller coaster. My teacher sorted us into teams; we researched existing roller coaster designs; we grabbed the dusty box of past teams’ designs from the top of the bookshelf in the corner of the room and pored over their ideas.
Then we designed our own coaster. My team planned out the general idea of what we wanted our coaster to do– a lift hill, a small hill, a 180 degree turn, a corkscrew, a small hill, and a few quick turns to the end. Then we started our calculations. The project was very open to interpretation, so we had to decide how tall our coaster would be and how steep the first incline was. That was my job. That first drop gave us all of the energy for the entire coaster. I handed off my final numbers to my teammates, and they calculated for their design element.
The night before the design section was due, almost my entire physics class met at a local boba tea shop to finish. We took over half of the restaurant with calculators and computers. The shop was alive with the sounds of pencils scratching on graph paper, drawing out sketches of coaster designs, and the nervous chatter of one-day-engineers nearing a looming deadline. I was actually sick that night and had missed school that day; I showed up wearing leggings and a NASA sweater, my hair pulled back messily. But I was there. We got to work, hurriedly double-checking calculations and finishing our drawings. And when we finally finished, my team looked at each other, breathed, and celebrated.
But the work wasn’t done. A week later, our models were due. My team met at my house to construct our scale model; the only rules were that we had to use a half-inch ball bearing and that we needed to construct the track out of two polyethylene tubes. I designed little brackets to hold the tubing at the correct spacing and printed them on my 3D printer. We used copious amounts of cardboard and hot glue. When the tubing wouldn’t bend, my dad grabbed a heat gun out of the garage– it was like a high-powered hair dryer– and we melted the tubing into shape. Bit by bit, our coaster took shape– and finally, it was done. We held our breath as we set the marble on top of the first hill, pushed it over, and watched as it fell. It tumbled off the track, so we made some modifications, and when it worked, we screamed.
Then, Monday morning, we rehearsed our presentation. Our teacher told us to dress business-casual, so throughout the day I’d see my Physics C classmates in suits or skirts and heels, looking professional and adult. We were the first presentation. And even though we were holding our cardboard-model roller coaster in my high school physics classroom, I really did feel like an engineer about to make an important sales pitch.
Presentation, applause, questions from the audience, and then the moment of truth– would our roller coaster work?
Marble on top of the coaster. I pushed it over the hill– and it fell.
“They don’t like travel,” my teacher said. “Try again.”
So we did. Once, twice, three times. The tension in the room built. My classmates crowded around our table, watching to see if our coaster would perform.
Marble on top of the coaster. Four– and it worked. My stress melted away. I high fived my teammates. Mrs. Watson pulled me in for a hug. AP Physics C broke into applause. We’d done it– with our knowledge of physics and hours of hard work, we’d made our little roller coaster work.
And what a roller coaster ride it was!
Post by ambassador Katie Mulry