Each April, the hallways in the Middle School are abuzz with excitement: everyone knows that 6th grade is about to begin the Roller Coaster Project. The Roller Coaster Project combines an understanding of Physics with the ability to work in groups. Students are tasked with creating a marble roller coaster that meets specific criteria from Elitch Gardens, a local amusement park, for their Show Us Your Coaster Contest. This project has become an annual tradition at Aspen Academy due to its transformative nature--the process of building these marble roller coasters is a learning journey that changes the way students think about projects and working in groups.
Build and Maintain Strong Relationships
The greatest key to growth for students on any project comes down to relationships. Students must have a strong relationship with the teacher, their peers, and their families so that there can be open and honest lines of communication. Similarly, teachers and families must have honest and open dialogue throughout the project so they can function as a coaching team to maximize student growth- trust is of paramount importance so everyone knows they are on the same team with the same end goal of helping every student reach their greatest potential. Throughout the Roller Coaster Project, students had to communicate with group members to make progress on building their roller coasters. At the same time, there was frequent communication between all adults involved to help coach each individual student based on the challenges they were facing and their unique personality with the understanding that every child is different and will need coaching tailored specifically to who they are and where they are coming from in their personal experience.
Ensure Alignment with Goals from the Beginning
When beginning any large project, it is crucial that everyone involved understand the ultimate goal and how that goal may manifest itself. Without alignment, miscommunication and misunderstanding become a much more prevalent pit fall. The end goal of the Roller Coaster Project is certainly to have a working Marble Roller Coaster by the end, but everyone involved knows that it is so much more than that: it is learning to successfully work as a team to complete a long term project by a deadline. The project is most successful when the goal of teaching students time management, communication skills, teamwork, failing forward, resilience, and grit is communicated before anyone has begun building anything. By beginning in this way, the project and students are set up for success from the start.
Create a Growth Mindset
Learning experiences become transformative when students have gleaned all they can from a project and reached their own personal potential for growth; what looks like success for one student won't be the same for another. Similarly, the Roller Coaster Project meets students where they are and allows our neurodiverse population to personalize their experience by effectively building their own version of success embodied in their roller coaster creation. When looking at each roller coaster, no two look alike; each is uniquely shaped by moments when students challenged themselves by choice or made a judgement call about what would be most beneficial for their team. Some roller coasters are beautifully decorated with a more linear track, allowing them to express their creativity and personality through their project; others are filled with loops, banks and sharp drops, showing their technical prowess and focus on the excitement within their creation. While those two examples are incredibly different, they can both still be successful and still fulfill all the requirements, which allows for an incredibly unique and individualized experience for students.
Growth and positive change are monumental accomplishments; solidifying them through a culminating celebration is a wonderful way for students to reflect on the journey they've taken and how much they've learned. The Roller Coaster Project ends every year with a Roller Coaster Expo; it is a celebration that allows students to showcase their work to family, friends, and classmates. The Expo is a wonderful opportunity for everyone involved to see their efforts come to fruition and to share in the one of a kind success of every different student. A panel of judges, composed of Aspen Alumni, come around to each coaster using the criteria from Elitch Gardens in order to determine the two projects that will be entered into the contest.Finally, at the end of the day, students are gathered together to celebrate one another and the finalists that will be representing our school in the contest are announced. It is a fun, exciting way for everyone to wrap up the project and celebrate all the hard work that paid off in such a meaningful way.
After an extensive teacher-led research process, Aspen Academy has adopted the latest, most innovative and relevant standards in the nation. The Next Generation Science Standards are used from grades K-8, making Aspen Academy one of the only schools in the area to use these cutting-edge standards school-wide.
About the Author: Jessica Cho is a 5th & 6th Grade Earth & Physical Science Instructor and Student Leadership & Entrepreneurship Coach at Aspen Academy. Jessica graduated from Colorado State University with a Bachelor's Degree in Natural Sciences. She continued her education at the University of Northern Colorado, where she earned a Master's Degree in Educational Psychology. She worked for seven years in Douglas County Schools before coming to Aspen Academy. Jessica loves coming to work in a place where every child is cared for and encouraged to grow. Outside of school, she loves to run, sing, and go backpacking. In fall of 2018, Jessica completed the NYC Marathon.