At Behrend, model roller coasters put math in action

A middle-school student reaches up to place a marble in a model roller coaster track.

Students at Penn State Behrend's Math Options Career Day build foam roller coasters to learn about momentum and kinetic energy. "It made me think about how someone would have to plan and design a roller coaster to go upside down," said Sierra Cruz, a student at Fairview Middle School.

Credit: Penn State Behrend

ERIE, Pa. — With a marble, some tape and a foam pipe insulator, Juli-Ann Luther showed a group of middle-schoolers how the math they learn in class makes roller coasters faster.

Luther, a senior engineer at Wabtec Corp., helped the students build miniature foam-track roller coasters. One group taped the track to a door hinge. Another hung the foam over a wall-mounted pencil sharpener, creating a loop.

As they worked, Luther, a volunteer at Penn State Behrend’s Math Options Career Day, talked about momentum and kinetic energy.

“It’s really important to engage kids in engineering and math and let them know there are interesting things they can do with the skills they learn,” she said.

Behind her, a foam track fell off the wall. A marble rolled under a desk, out of reach.

“It was really fun,” Sierra Cruz, a student at Fairview Middle School, said later. “You had to get the right momentum for the marble to go through the loops. It made me think about how someone would have to plan and design a roller coaster to go upside down.”

The annual Math Options program offers hands-on demonstrations of how math is applied in different settings. Students wired circuits, built bridges with spaghetti noodles and wrote code that moved robots. In another room, teams of seventh- and eighth-graders dropped Barbie dolls on bungee cords.

More than 175 students attended this year’s program, which featured engineers and project managers from Wabtec, National Fuel and Parker LORD, among other companies. Those volunteers, who were joined by Behrend faculty members, encouraged the students to enroll in upper-level mathematics courses.

“Research shows that young women, in particular, often will take the minimum math and science courses when they get to high school,” said Melanie Ford, director of Youth Education Outreach and the Engineering K-12 Outreach Center at Behrend. “We want to reach them in middle school, before they make those decisions. The more courses they take, the more STEM careers will be available to them.”

Between workshops, students at the Math Options program browsed a STEM fair in McGarvey Commons, in the college’s Reed Union Building. They tested 3D pens and tasted homemade ice cream.

At one activity station, students viewed an assortment of trading cards, each depicting a different STEM profession.

“We want to show them that there are an infinite number of jobs in the sciences,” said Wendy Kedzierski, an environmental science educator and project director at Creek Connections, an Allegheny College program that works with more than 40 secondary schools. “It’s not usually a straight path to a career, and it’s OK not to know yet, and to just explore things.”

Students at the Math Options program seemed to understand that.

“This all showed me that math and science are in a lot of the world,” said Maya Michael, a student at Fairview Middle School. “They can be in a lot of places you don’t expect them to be.”