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Heart-Stopping Rollercoasters

Restorative Practices, Motivation, and the Formation of a Science Identity

The Science Teacher—May/June 2023 (Volume 90, Issue 5)

By Zachary Schafer

Heart-Stopping Rollercoasters

One goal of restorative practices is to educate the whole student (Kelly and Thorsborne 2014; Wachtel 2016). Restorative practices in science education use science as a vehicle for both achievement and personal development with the teacher as an expert guide for meaningful knowledge acquisition (Andersen 1978; Wachtel 2016;). These practices create opportunities for students to develop a science identity through the development of a sense of relatedness to both self and the discipline (Moore et al. 2020). When students know their personal experiences can be used to empower and instill meaning in their lives, they are eager to learn and grow (Ryan and Deci 2000).

Motivation to learn and grow has three components: competence (skill development), autonomy (I can do this on my own), and relatedness (personal connection) (Ryan and Deci 2000). The restorative approach to science education looks to build autonomy and competence from the various relationships in the classroom—student-teacher, student-student, student-subject, student-developing self (Moore et al. 2020; Quinlan 2016; Wachtel 2016). Using the principles of restorative practices, these relationships develop by embracing uncertainty in the student’s life with curiosity and vulnerability (Brown 2013; Kashdan 2009).

This article focuses on the student-teacher relationship as a way to facilitate the formation of a science identity that emerges from the student’s relationship with the content and the student’s relationship with their developing self (Quinlan 2016). Together, teacher and student were able to transform struggle in science to wonder in science (Chen 2021) using relevant personal challenges in the student’s life as a motivational resource. Through curious and vulnerable exploration, sensemaking of science content, and meaning-making in relation to personal interest and life challenges, a science identity emerged that sounded like, “I could do this!”

Designing rollercoasters, engineering identity

The following story took place in a program that was built in collaboration between a school district and community nonprofit called The Beacon. The Beacon Alternative Suspension Program provides suspended students with a chance to restore harmed relationships and succeed academically.

I recently worked with a student named Tommy (pseudonym) over the course of two days in three 45-minute sessions. He was thin with a small frame and a lot of energy that was difficult for him to control. Tommy avoided academics. I casually approached him with a simple question, “How are you doing today?”

Tommy responded, “I don’t have any homework to do.”

I replied, “Whoa. I didn’t say anything about work. I just asked how you were.”

He reset and responded “Fine.” Then opened up and told me a bit about his day.

I continued, “So what do you like to do?”

Tommy was apprehensive but answered, “I like to play video games.”

“What games do you like to play?”


“What do you like about the game?”

This is where things got interesting. He responded, “I like to mostly play in creative mode, where you can build what you like. Then there is the mode where you can fight other players. That part is fun because you really have to be good and careful in order to win. And I like to play with people online, but not the toxic people, like the people that will just make fun of you for no reason.”

I thought on this as he was speaking and realized, in his own way, he was alluding to self-determination theory (Ryan and Deci 2000): People are motivated by feelings of “competence, autonomy, and relatedness.” So, I said to him, “All of that makes sense. What you explained is similar to all sorts of people. You like to build skills and prove those skills when playing other players. You like to be creative and make something that comes from your mind. And you like that there is a community of people to connect and have fun with. Would you say this is right or wrong?”

Tommy confirmed I was right.

I asked “Can you trust me enough to show you how this mindset can be used for other things?” Warily, he agreed and we found an assignment to work on.

The assignment asked him to design a rollercoaster within a simulation that could achieve the teacher’s parameters. Before we went any further, I asked a question to help Tommy connect through personal experience: “Have you ever been on a rollercoaster?” I got an answer I didn’t expect.

Tommy responded, “I can’t go on rollercoasters.” Intrigued, I asked, “Why not?”

“I have a condition called Loeys-Dietz. It means I can’t get too excited or overworked.”

From personal knowledge, I understood that the syndrome was caused by an enlarged aorta that over time could cause aneurysms and possibly death (Mayo Clinic, n.d.). It was evident that he didn’t understand the severity of the condition. Without causing further concern, I asked him, “What kind of excitement would you have to avoid on a rollercoaster?”

After thinking for a moment, he expressed, “That stomach dropping feeling.”

At this point I had to get curious. I knew what he meant but realized I didn’t know how to scientifically define the “stomach dropping feeling.” I could have reverted to an equation, but too much was at stake—I needed him to see that he was smart and that his words could be transformed into the terms of a scientist.

After some quick research, we found that the “stomach dropping feeling” happens when a person experiences a drop that overcomes the force of gravity (PI Inside the Perimeter, n.d.)—it’s the sensation of weightlessness. I thought for moment and said, “Would you like to ride a rollercoaster if you could avoid that ‘stomach dropping feeling’?” Enthusiastically, he said that he would.

I asked Tommy what types of things occur on rollercoasters. He said, “Rollercoasters (1) go fast, (2) can have turns, (3) have twists, and (4) can have loops.” We went through each of these variables and discussed whether or not they would be OK for a person with Loeys-Dietz to experience. With this information, we returned to the assignment.

In the assignment, we used simulations to investigate the different variables. The simulations were paired with questions that scaffolded his understanding of gravity, mass, and friction. Carefully, I helped Tommy through these ideas, while continuing to return him to the question, “What does this mean for a rollercoaster built for a person with Loeys-Dietz?”

We asked, “How much velocity would cause the ‘stomach dropping feeling’ for me?” With the current definition of the “stomach dropping feeling,” we looked at gravity. We discovered that the acceleration due to gravity was 9.8 m/s2. We also discovered that we would need to take into account the mass of his body (49 kg). With the knowledge we had constructed, I suggested that he type up what we had learned to take to his physics teacher to get feedback. Figure 1

Figure 1
The finished product that Tommy handed in to his physical science teacher.

The finished product that Tommy handed in to his physical science teacher.

Tommy wrote the following:

After he finished, I returned to my original point, “So, we got to create, right? We created a rollercoaster for people with a heart condition.” He nodded his head in agreement. I continued, “You learned some skills and how to write a good lab report and do math, right?” Again, he agreed. “And we got to do this together and enjoy each other’s company, right?” He agreed again, at which point I explained that these were all the things he liked about Fortnite, just doing something different.

Tommy smiled and I continued, “This is pretty cool what you were able to do today. How many young people do you think spent time today thinking about how to design a rollercoaster for people with Loeys-Dietz?” Tommy shrugged his shoulders. I responded, “Probably only you. And look at what you were able to figure out.” Tommy looked over all the work for a few moments and then with excitement said, “I could do this. I could design rollercoasters. I could be an engineer.” I resounded, “Yes, you could.”

Underlying values and principles for adaptation and modification

In this interaction, an opportunity was created for a student to transfer the motivation he had for video games to science. The use of analogical reasoning (Vendettie et al. 2015) to transfer a mindset across a broad range of topics (Epstein 2019) allowed the student to see how his intelligence, interest, and skills in one area of life could be applied to challenging aspects of life. This story speaks to how the values and principles of restorative practices can converge with science education to create opportunities for students to be heard, find a way to make sense of course content, have their stories bear meaning and utility, and create the tendrils necessary to bloom identity.

Restorative values: respect and relationship. The first two values in restorative practices are respect and relationships (Restorative Solutions 2022; see Online Connections). In science education, restorative practices ask science teachers to be scientists. It asks teachers to show respect and form relationships with students by using the curiosity and wonder inherent in science to seek deep understanding of each student’s story—their challenges, joys, and an answer to the question “Where does science fit into my student’s story and act as a tool for personal understanding, empowerment, and as a way to navigate the world?” Doing this requires curiosity and vulnerability from teachers.

Restorative principles: academic curiosity and vulnerability. Vulnerability and curiosity for a teacher sounds like “I don’t know, but we can figure it out.” Education is about the pursuit of knowledge and being open to applying skills gained to novel problems.

Seek the place where motivation and identity live

“Interest is the point of departure” (Tyler 1950). H.O. Andersen (1978) highlighted this quote when he spoke about the holistic nature of science education and its ability to engage students in a way that is unique to the needs of each learner (Schwab 1973). The process of discovering these needs and using them to establish the beginnings of a science identity can be broken down and remembered using EMM - Every Moment Matters in science as we explore, make sense, and make meaning.

  • Explore: Be curious.
  • Make sense: Draw connections and bridge the gap.
  • Make meaning: Highlight the niche and foster student awareness.


  • Be curious: Find something that makes your student light up. Seek to deeply understand why the student is interested in the topic. Start to ask yourself the question “How can science be a tool to help this student bring meaning to the connection they are finding in their interest?”
  • Utilize vulnerability as a strength: Don’t be afraid to ask more questions and say things like “I don’t know.” Use these moments as opportunities to make sense of what the student observes alongside the student.

Make sense

  • Draw connections: Leverage your abilities as a teacher to think critically and draw connections between new pieces of information you and the student discover. Model for students what it looks like to seek information. Explicate the process so they can understand how a scientist asks questions and seeks information (Ericsson and Pool 2017).
  • Bridge the gap: Use analogical reasoning (Epstein 2019; Vendetti et al. 2015) to create opportunities for students’ stories to bridge the gap to meaning.

Make meaning

  • Highlight the niche and foster student awareness: Praise the efforts the student makes (Haimovitz and Dweck 2017). Ask questions to help the student become aware of the unique strengths and/or opportunities they have (Jones 2006). Continue to empower the student by further supporting and encouraging them to follow these strengths and/or opportunities (Jones 2006).


Inherent within restorative practices is a search for deep meaning. Though, from my observations, there is a heavy focus on making sense in the science classroom—gathering data points and putting them together to understand a system with very little time spent asking students, “Why does this matter to you?” It’s assumed students are doing this on their own.

However, from what I have observed, students are quick to disengage either at the point of mastery, failure, or completion of assignments and do something of greater interest—play a video game, text friends, or talk with classmates—or at other points of departure.

Through the restorative lens, interest as an affective state is only one point of departure (Costello, Wachtel, and Wachtel 2010). Affect itself can range from “dis-smell” to “joy” (Tomkins 1962, 1963, 1991). The feelings associated with the affects are a product of experience, and emotions are further constructions of how the self is situated within it all (Barrett 2017; Kelly and Thorsborne 2014). Restorative practitioners explore them all.

Restorative practices recognize that along with good experiences, students walk around with grief, shame, and a multitude of other harms placed upon them by the world (Kelly and Thorsborne 2014; O’Connor 2022; Wachtel 2016). For the students who are struggling with mental health, this may be the case. With this in mind, the restorative practitioner would ask, “Which point of departure is relevant to each of my students?” For Tommy, it was both his interest in video games and his heart condition.

Restorative practices empower students to discover self-awareness by finding where their personal stories meet science (Wachtel 2016). Through strong student-teacher relationships, awareness, and empowerment, students find a place where respect deepens and motivation is natural and enjoyable (Jones 2006; Kelly and Thorsborne 2014; Ryan and Deci 2000; Wachtel 2016). Some see disengagement as misbehavior. I am suggesting that disengagements are cries for deeper engagement found in opportunities yet to be discovered. Discovery requires teacher exploration, curiosity, and vulnerability. Deeper engagement requires asking questions of meaning. Deeper engagement sounds like “I could do this!”

For the teacher seeking ideas on how to facilitate this with a whole class, see Schafer and Scharmann (2021).

Online connections

Mayo Clinic. n.d. Vascular involvement in Loeys-Dietz Syndrome.

PI Inside the Perimeter. n.d. PI kids are asking: Why does your stomach drop when you’re on a roller coaster?

Restorative Solutions. 2022. The 5 ‘R’s of restorative justice: Are they always applicable? always-applicable

Zachary Schafer ( is a doctoral student and teacher educator at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE.


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Crosscutting Concepts Equity Inclusion Inquiry Literacy Pedagogy Physical Science Science and Engineering Practices Teaching Strategies High School

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