Challenge Island

Katonah Elementary School’s STEAM Lab bursts with energy and excitement as third graders pitch ideas, adapt to test-run results and celebrate success … one 10-inch segment of rollercoaster run at a time.

What’s happening? An enrichment program called Challenge Island in which groups of students design and build a multi-ramp rollercoaster. The timed challenge folds problem solving, collaboration and flexible thinking into what students just learned about kinetic energy, potential energy, gravity and friction. Pop music and matching headbands add to the fun!

Teams of three and four students gather around tables. Roles within each team quickly emerge. One student captures the group’s ideas in quick sketches on a small whiteboard. Others transfer the design to a large piece of poster board, taping tracks and tunnels. Happy dances and group commiseration ripple across the room as the teams test each segment with a little ball. “Five more minutes,” said the Challenge Island facilitator.

“The students just finished the science unit on energy and forces,” said teacher Patricia Patwell. “They love this because it’s all hands-on.”

At the group share at the end, the students see that no two rollercoasters are alike. The designs and decorations are as creative as the team names, which include Green Apples, Island Coaster, Six Paths, Bluebear Strike and Rainbow. Yet each group celebrates success as their balls take exhilarating rides through banked turns and vertical drops while staying safely on till the exit.

"Our ball kept jumping off the rails," said one student from team Rainbow. "So we cut a paper tube and made it into guardrails."  

With that short statement, the arc of the design process is encompassed: ideate, prototype, test, share.