UNION — Have you ever ridden on a roller coaster? You have? That’s great. Now tell us, have you built one? No? Well, some students at Foster Park Elementary School have and they did it in the classroom.
While the idea of “gravity-powered inclined rides” dates back to the 17th century and the first amusement rides were the “Russian Mountains,” the specially constructed hills of snow in 18th century Russia, the modern roller coaster has its beginnings in the mid-1880s with the work of LaMarcus Adna Thompson, an American businessman and inventor. Over the course of his lifetime, Thompson would obtain approximately 30 patents for roller coasters, leading to his becoming known as the “Father of the American Roller Coaster” as well as the “Father of the Gravity Ride.”
In 1884, Thompson achieved his breakthrough in the development of the roller coaster with the “Gravity Pleasure Switchback Ride” which opened that year at Coney Island. The Gravity Switchback Ride traveled at 6 miles per hour and cost 5 cents to ride.
Things have changed a little bit since then as roller coasters have, fortunately, gotten faster, and, unfortunately, more expensive to ride.
One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is that roller coasters have continued to entertain since Thompson’s day and, at a local school recently, challenged the imaginations, creativity, and technical abilities of some very bright young people.
The young people were 3rd graders at Foster Park Elementary School who, with the assistance of a Roper Mountain Science Center education specialist, designed and built roller coasters. The design and construction of the roller coasters were a STEM activity. STEM, of course, is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, skills that can come in quite handing when building some like, say, roller coasters. The students put those skills to the test and, working together — teamwork is another thing students learn, much to their benefit and society’s, in school — under the guidance of the education specialist — the ability to take direction is another useful ability students learn in school — built small-scale but still functional roller coasters.
LaMarcus Adna Thompson would likely approve of their efforts and would no doubt urge the students to apply themselves to developing the skills and habits that will help them achieve in both the classroom and beyond.
While building a classroom roller coaster may not seem like a big deal, keep in mind that STEM skills are used to build other things such as the robots that are an increasingly large presence in the workplaces of today and will be an even larger presence in the workplaces of tomorrow. So learning and honing those STEM skills by building roller coasters in the classroom will help the 3rd graders at FPES and their fellow students at the school and throughout Union County prepare to successfully tackle the challenges of our increasingly technologically-oriented society.
And if you’re still having trouble grasping how someone can go from building roller coasters to designing and building robots, just remember, LaMarcus Adna Thompson started out as a carpenter before becoming an entrepreneur and an inventor. So who knows, the next Thompson or, for that matter, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, and Orville and Wilbur Wright may have helped build a roller coaster in a 3rd grade classroom at Foster Park Elementary School.
Charles Warner can be reached at 864-762-4090.