How an Interest in Roller Coasters Inspired True Personalized Learning

New Learning Experiences

This weekend, I had the pleasure of riding with my son (age 7) on his first “real” roller coaster. Sure, he’s been on the kiddee coasters and enjoyed them, but not an “anxiety-filled climb, press you to your seat, knock the wind out of you, and spin you upside down,” roller coaster.  On Sunday, he rode…

This has been building in him for quite some time.  I think, I knew he was destined to be a coaster junkie from the time he was about 18 months old.  Sometimes, a dad just knows.  Recently, though, he has been expressing genuine interest. Once he understood a loop-de-loop was possible, he was on a quest.

We started with YouTube videos so that he could have exposure to many different types of coasters.  There are wooden, steel, stand-up, inverted and many others, as you well know.  This led to research into roller coaster toys.  (Where was K’nex when I was a kid?)  He earned a K’nex kit by studying and learning to read and write, you guessed it, roller coaster words.  Life was good for about two weeks as we built and rebuilt the coaster until it was just right.  He even slept with it.

Passion Based Research

I knew that this wouldn’t be good enough, though.  Soon the questions began about riding a big roller coaster. We did more Internet research to find rides in the area and determine which ones had height requirements he could meet (learning about inches and feet along the way).  We picked Six Flags Fiesta in San Antonio for a day trip, and his focus on that trip was laser-sharp.  We prepared for the trip by playing Roller Coaster Tycoon 3 on my tablet, which lets you build roller coasters and then “ride” them virtually.

I believe you know where this is going.  We were stemming of his interests to teach him several things, but his passion was the rocket fuel.  We did learning activities in ways that can’t really be done without technology.  We learned about roller coasters, but we also learned about spelling, maps, planning physics, etc…  In the end though, there is no substitute for the real-life experience.  Sometimes, you just have to ride.

Beyond the Virtual Tour

When we arrived at the park, he was walking with purpose.  The first roller coaster was a doozie, and he was disappointed that he was not tall enough to ride, but he was not deterred.  Such grit.  He found the next one, the Boomerang, and quickly backed himself up to the measuring stick.  I’m telling you, he barely cleared the mark and he was lucky he had his shoes on.  On to the ride he went. 

Let me just give you few snippets of his comments after the ride:

“The ride was fast, but why did the loops seem to go soooo slow?”

“How fast were we going?  Were we going 100mph?”

“Why didn’t I fall out?”

Now well get to answer those questions, but he gets to answer them first and then we’ll do research.  I never set out to teach him a subject, but he learned a lot.  Subjects never were in separate buckets until we broke them apart in schools. Learning leads to learning, is all I can say, but he did say one more thing. 

“Can we go again?”


Kevin Schwartz serves as the Chief Technology Officer for Clear Creek ISD, home of 41,000 students, NASA, and the Latitude 2 Learn 1:1 tablet computer initiative and he brings 20 years of experience in K-12. He is also Chair of the Texas K-12 CTO Council and actively serves on the CoSN SEND and SmartIT committees. Kevin is a frequent presenter on a broad range of education technology topics and is a consultant to school districts that seek transformational changes in learning through technology. 

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