Roller Coaster Building Contest

Physics Day 2010

Friday, April 22, 2016
(rules revised 03/2015)

Each year during Physics Day at Six Flags America, AAPT hosts a Roller Coaster Contest for middle school and high school students.  The roller coasters are built by teams of students in either of the two grade categories: Grades 5-8 or Grades 9-12.

The choice of materials is up to you but we recommend wood, wire, string, twine, doweling, toothpicks, cardboard, construction paper, glue, tape or other low cost items. Commercially available roller coaster kits are discouraged.

Roller coasters are called "gravity rides" for a good reason: once the coaster has been dragged to the top of the first hill and released, it is the force of gravity that keeps the coaster going all the way back to the station platform at the end of the ride. As the coaster goes through its twists, turns, rolls, and loops, it gains and loses its initial potential energy. Energy changes from potential into kinetic energy and back into potential energy. Since some of this initial energy is lost due to friction, the roller coaster can never rise as high as the first hill. The roller coaster you will design is also a "gravity ride".

In the "Spirit of the Competition," the key ingredients are creativity and application of science principles. Doing a great job is encouraged over spending lots of money to complete the project.

Roller coasters will judged based on three categories as explained below:

a. Technical Merit
b. Theme and Creativity
c. Most exciting to ride

First & Second Place Prizes will be awarded in the following categories:

a. Grades 5-8
b. Grades 9-12

Contest Rules

(a) Size restrictions - the base must fit within a square footprint that is 36"x 36".
(b) Model should be designed for a 5/8" marble. This means that the steel ball or glass marble when released from the top of the first hill by the judge will travel through the entire ride, and arrive at the bottom loading platform.
(c) Magnets, electricity, springs and other forms of energy may not be used - this is a "gravity ride" only. No electricity is provided in the contest area.
(d) Starting position at the top of the first hill should be clearly marked.
(e) Each competing team can have a maximum of 4 students.
(f) The maximum number of teams from a school is 3.
(g) The decision of the judges is final. Any coaster that violates the rules above or the spirit of the competition will be disqualified.

Judging Criteria

Technical Score (50 pts)
Each model will be entitled to three runs. The longest time to go from the Start position to the Finish will be the official time for that model. (50 pts maximum) calculation

Bonus points
for technical merit will be awarded for the following:

  • 5 points per vertical loop. Vertical loop is defined as any time the "rider" is upside down on a loop of track that is within 10° of vertical (see illustration). If the vertical loop is a portion of a corkscrew (helix), it counts as a vertical loop. Horizontal loops do not add bonus points.
  • 0-15 points may be awarded for degree of openness of track.
  • 0-10 points may be awarded for novel engineering, including use of unusual materials, quality of workmanship, etc.

(creativity) Score (25 pts)

The model roller coaster will be judged for its merits as a possible ride to be purchased by an amusement park. Selecting a theme is an essential element of a new ride. A score out of 25 will be awarded to each entry.

Rider Enjoyment
(25 pts)

Each entry will be judged for rider enjoyment. A score out of 25 will be awarded to each entry.


(1) Each team must attach a 3" x 5" index card to the ride. The front of the card should include:
  • Name of the Roller Coaster
  • Grade Level (5-8 or 9-12)

The back of the card should include:
  • School Name
  • Members of the Team with grade level
  • Teacher Name
  • Teacher's contact phone number

(2) Each team should download and complete the Entry/Scoring Form. Bring it with you to the model judging at Six Flags America.

Entry/Scoring Form (Word)
Entry/Scoring Form (PDF)

The contest rules were taken from Physics Day at Great America, Santa Clara, California. Visit the website at for more information.

Calculation of Points for Time

The points awarded for time will be based on the maximum time taken within the grade level (5-8, 9-12). Assume the maximum time was 15 seconds and your coaster took 9 seconds:

Points = 50 points x (your time / maximum time)

Points = 50 points x (9 sec / 15 sec) = 30 points

Calculation of Bonus Points

Bonus Points for technical merit will be awarded based on the following rubric:

Vertical Loops

1 = 5 pts

2 = 10 pts

3 = 15 pts

4 = 20 pts

Track Openness

Mostly closed = 0

~25% open = 5 pts

~50% open = 10 pts

>80% open = 15 pts


Nothing unusual = 0

Some novel materials = 3 pts

Several novel parts = 6 pts

Great deal of novel design = 10 pts

Calculation of Theme Points

Theme points will be awarded based on the following rubric:

Definite Theme

No theme = 0

Theme but little follow through = 3 pts

Theme throughout ride = 6 pts

Theme well done throughout = 10 pts

Would attract visitors

Wouldn't attract = 0



Strong attraction = 10 pts

Park would be able to construct

Very difficult to build = 0



Reasonable to build = 5 pts

Calculation of Rider Enjoyment Points

Rider Enjoyment points will be awarded based the following rubric:

"Realistic" Ride

Unrealistic for people = 0

Would be harsh for people = 1 pt

Would be generally reasonable = 3 pts

People would ride safely = 5 pts

High g-forces

Blase ride = 0

Very minor g-forces = 1 pt

1 good area = 3 pts

>1 area = 5 pts

Unexpected thrills

None = 0

Very minor thrills= 1 pt

1 good one = 3 pts

>1 good one = 5 pts

Would you want to ride it?

Definitely not = 0

Leaning towards not = 3 pts

Leaning towards yes = 6 pts

Definitely yes = 10 pts

The rubrics above are advisory only, and might be used by teachers as they work with their classes.