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Ben Jacob discusses the physics of roller coasters for third- and fourth-graders at Cummings Elementary School, Misawa Air Base, Japan, on Thursday. Jacob was among a small group of fifth- and sixth-graders at Cummings who spent two months building two miniature roller coasters in their gifted education class.

Ben Jacob discusses the physics of roller coasters for third- and fourth-graders at Cummings Elementary School, Misawa Air Base, Japan, on Thursday. Jacob was among a small group of fifth- and sixth-graders at Cummings who spent two months building two miniature roller coasters in their gifted education class. (Jennifer Svan / S&S)

Ben Jacob discusses the physics of roller coasters for third- and fourth-graders at Cummings Elementary School, Misawa Air Base, Japan, on Thursday. Jacob was among a small group of fifth- and sixth-graders at Cummings who spent two months building two miniature roller coasters in their gifted education class.

Ben Jacob discusses the physics of roller coasters for third- and fourth-graders at Cummings Elementary School, Misawa Air Base, Japan, on Thursday. Jacob was among a small group of fifth- and sixth-graders at Cummings who spent two months building two miniature roller coasters in their gifted education class. (Jennifer Svan / S&S)

Third- and fourth-graders at Cummings watch the student-built roller coaster crest the top of a hill riding a pulley.

Third- and fourth-graders at Cummings watch the student-built roller coaster crest the top of a hill riding a pulley. (Jennifer Svan / S&S)

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — A roller coaster can be a ride of hair-raising screams and pure fun.

Building one is another story.

Fifth- and sixth-graders in Carol Miller’s gifted education class at Cummings Elementary School constructed two roller coaster replicas from a kit, each measuring about 4 feet tall and 6 feet long.

In a sixth-grade demonstration of the project at the school last week, the pupils said they learned more than just the laws of physics.

“Yeah, it was hard,” said Eric Adams. “We had to redo the loop four times.”

Miller noted the fifth-graders finished their roller coaster first. It wasn’t that they were smarter, she said, but that they worked as a team.

“They just stuck with it and read the plans, page by page,” she said. “The sixth graders, they said, ‘No, we don’t have to work as a team; no, we don’t have to follow the plans.’”

The end result, the teacher said: Their roller coaster car “kept falling into space” when attempting the loop.

“We were experimenting,” explained sixth-grader Torrey Ferguson.

“When this is your first time, you don’t be creative,” Miller said. “You follow the engineer’s plans.”

But the sixth-graders persevered, came together as a team and their roller coaster glided perfectly through the loop during the demonstration. Curious third- and fourth-graders gathered around the miniature coaster, with its bright orange tracks, and wanted to know how fast the car could go and why the paper doll in the seat didn’t fall out.

“I always thought it was because of the seat belt,” Adams said. “It’s because the forces of acceleration and gravity are equal” through the loop.

Miller has done the roller coaster project with previous classes, starting about five years ago at a Department of Defense Dependents School in Germany. She bought the kits, which have more than 1,000 pieces each, from an educational supply company in the States.

Even though her students knew little about physics — a subject usually not explored until high school — “I saw that it was a turn-on,” Miller said. “Not only was it hands-on but they wanted to learn how this thing worked. They took it to a science fair and won a major prize.”

The Cummings students said not only was the project a good lesson in teamwork but they also picked up some quirky facts about roller coasters: The Russians were the first to invent the concept, and the fastest one on the planet — a mind-boggling 128 miles per hour — is being built at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, N.J.

Ben Jacob said they also learned one bump or bend in the track can slow the roller coaster car enough that it won’t make the loop.

That alone gave the avid roller coaster riders in the group second thoughts about boarding a real roller coaster again.

“Now that I know all this stuff about it, I’m kind of more afraid,” Ferguson said.

“And how easy it is for things to go wrong,” Adams added.

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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