MiddleSchoolPortal/Energy Transfers and Transformations: Sparking Student Interest

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Energy Transfers & Transformations: Sparking Student Interest - Introduction

As we each move through our day, we are constantly witnessing and experiencing changes in energy. Most of us just don’t notice. It starts when the alarm clock goes off and continues as we power up with breakfast, do our morning workout, and drive to school. Even the leaves on plants are quietly converting solar energy into chemical energy!



It is easy to get hung up with the concept of energy. Even Nobel laureate Richard Feynman (1995, pgs. 71-72) found it an abstract topic.

It is important to realize that in physics today, we have no knowledge of what energy is. We do not have a picture that energy comes in little blobs of a definite amount. It is not that way. However, there are formulas for calculating some numerical quantity and when we add it together it gives "28"—always the same number. It is an abstract thing in that it does not tell us the mechanisms or the reasons for the various formulas.

The purpose of Energy Transfers & Transformations is to provide you with resources that help your students understand how energy moves and changes. We followed the recommendations of the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) that middle school students experience energy moving from place to place and changing forms. Students should see how energy can cause objects to move. When we raise students’ awareness of the energy movements and conversions around them in their daily lives, energy becomes more real.

The terms energy transfer and energy transformation are often used interchangeably. Here we will refer to the movement of one form of energy from place to place as energy transfer and the conversion of energy from one form to another as energy transformation. If we are talking about heat being conducted from a warm to cool area, that would be energy transfer. When we refer to electrical energy being converted to light, we use the term energy transformation.

We've selected resources that give you an idea of middle school energy concepts and activities. They are not meant to meet all of your teaching needs, but will perhaps spark some ideas for you and your students to convert the abstract to the concrete.

References: Feynman, Richard P. (1995). Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by its Most Brilliant Teacher. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.

National Research Council. (1996). National Science Education Standards. Washington, DC: Author.

Background Information for Teachers

If you didn’t read the quote by Richard Feynman in the Introduction, take a second to do that. Done? Now, breathe a sigh of relief. Even physicists of the Nobel laureate type don’t completely understand energy. That said, we encourage you and your students to dig into this topic with gusto. For guidance on how to sequence your lessons, consider the relationships among energy transfer concepts. This tool--NSDL Strand Map Service--maps a sequence of learning goals from grades K-12 and lists resources related to specific science and math concepts. The maps illustrate connections between concepts as well as how concepts build upon one another across grade levels. An image of the grade 6-8 section of the Energy Transformations map appears below. The Energy Transformations map is one of sixteen maps under The Physical Setting heading. Clicking on a concept (aka learning goal within a gray box) will show NSDL resources relevant to the concept, as well as information about related AAAS Project 2061 Benchmarks and National Science Education Standards. Move the pink box in the lower right hand corner of the page to see the grades 6-8 learning goals.

Energy Transformations Map

View individual map Printable view of map

Below is a handful of informational resources that you and your students can consult to help underpin your exploration of energy transformations. Use them to supplement the materials you already have. For each resource, we’ve indicated if it is appropriate for student use, teacher use, or for use by both groups. You’ll find resources about potential and kinetic energy and other forms of energy, including one resource focused just on light.

Introduction to energy Are you a little confused about types of energy and their transformations? Teachers and students can learn how different types of energy are categorized into potential and kinetic forms. Each brief paragraph explains how the form of energy is stored or released. Small icons are used to show how energy is transformed from one form to another. For example, readers can see that the chemical energy in gasoline is transformed into energy of motion in a car. At the bottom of the document you will find additional information about renewable and nonrenewable sources of energy.

Types of energy Here’s a reading that can introduce students to a variety of energy forms and to some of the energy transformations that humans use to meet our energy needs. Paragraph-long overviews of each of nine different energy types are provided. Gravitational, mechanical, nuclear, and sound energy are among the featured types. These overviews touch on what the energy form is, where it can be found (for example, chemical energy in a match), and ways that humans can or might be able to convert the energy form into a more usable type. The reading is from a site about the future of energy.

Energy Tutorial Although most of this teacher-level tutorial is afield from our focus (but quite nice if you’re interested in energy use), two sections of it—Energy and Energy conversion—are worth dipping into for background information presented from a perspective other than that of your textbook. Since the tutorial is the handiwork of the National Fuel Cell Research Center, you can probably guess that it deals with energy issues like supply and efficiency from a practical viewpoint. No contrived real-world connections here!


Energy transfers and transformations are more than the stuff of textbooks. Here’s a crop of hands-on activities that will have your students observing, experiencing, and building an understanding of how energy moves and changes forms. The activities take from one to two class periods to complete.

Potential and Kinetic Energy: Spool Racer This teaching aid provides multiple parts that support students learning about potential and kinetic energy. One part is a segment of the television program Zoom, in which two young children build and demonstrate a spool racer. A goal of the video is to illustrate how the potential energy of a stretched rubber band is released as kinetic energy when the racer careens across the table. Since the words potential and kinetic energy are never mentioned, you may decide to hold off introducing the terms until the students answer the question "What makes the spool racer go?" Because the segment is just under 2.5 minutes and can be viewed separately, you have a lot of flexibility in how you use this resource. If your students are going to build spool racers, they can view the video to see how to make them. If the students are not going to construct the racers, they can consider what happens in the video to answer the discussion questions. The second part is three paragraphs of background information that are appropriate for either you or your students. The information contains real-world examples of potential and kinetic energy. If the students are doing this as a discovery activity, you will want to have them read this section after they are done with the spool racer. Even though the children in the video look to be in elementary school, the discussion questions and the activity are very appropriate for middle school students. A link to the related standards is provided.

Energy at play Students learn about potential and kinetic energy firsthand in this design challenge. The challenge is two-tiered: Students design a toy that can propel a ball first a short and then a longer distance. (Consider converting the distances so that they are both in the metric system.) In between the two tasks, the teacher demonstrates and facilitates a discussion about the conservation of energy. The packet offers substantial teacher support material, including materials lists, teaching points and related questions to ask students about the energy concepts involved in their designs, and lists of design constraints to share with students. Although grades 3-6 are the target audience, the challenge’s content aligns well with the national physical science standards for grades 5-8. Note that gravitational and elastic potential energy—the forms of potential energy addressed here—are not the only kinds of potential energy.

Atmospheric Processes: Radiation Need some experience doing quantitative science experiments? In these activities, students take measurements, graph the results, and draw conclusions. They even generalize their results to real-world applications! After explaining the differences between conduction, convection, and radiation, this teacher guide offers activities in which the students learn first-hand the relationship between the color or texture of an object and its ability to absorb energy. Students first measure, at one-minute intervals for ten minutes, the temperature of three materials (water, light soil, and dark soil, or materials chosen by the teacher or students) heated by a reflector lamp. The students also measure the temperature of the three materials as they cool for ten minutes. Students consider that the Earth is made of a variety of materials that absorb heat unevenly. What impact do you think this has on the Earth’s atmosphere? Good way to link energy transfer to weather and climate, isn’t it?

Testing materials for thermal conductivity We didn’t select this heat conduction activity because it is new and different. That said, this version did catch our eye for a number of reasons: (1) The student activity sheet is written clearly, and the activity is well-designed; (2) Short answer and multiple choice assessment questions and answers are included; and (3) The producers of the lesson plan, the Texas State Energy Conservation Office, have set the activity in a real-world context--that of home insulation. A required reading from the same site is the basis for some of the assessment questions, a few of which are specific to Texas. The teacher instructions come first in the packet, so don’t be confused if you see assessment answers before spotting the questions.

Dancing penny With the most basic of equipment (a coin, a bottle, and water or oil) and this demonstration, you can get students thinking about the transfer of heat and the cascading effects of that transfer. The activity, part of the well-known Whelmers set, comes with all the teacher supports you’d expect, including presentation notes, standards correlations, an explanation of the demonstration’s science content, and an assessment idea. The demo calls on students to consider the conduction of heat, the chain of energy conversions leading up to the heat transfer, and the relationship between the temperature and pressure of a gas.

SMARTR: Virtual Learning Experiences for Students

Visit our student site SMARTR to find related virtual learning experiences for your students! The SMARTR learning experiences were designed both for and by middle school aged students. Students from around the country participated in every stage of SMARTR’s development and each of the learning experiences includes multimedia content including videos, simulations, games and virtual activities. Visit the virtual learning experience on Energy.


The FunWorks Visit the FunWorks STEM career website to learn more about a variety of science-related careers (click on the Science link at the bottom of the home page).

National Science Education Standards


These excerpts from the National Science Education Standards (NSES) relate to the study of energy in middle school. Physical Science

As a result of activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop an understanding of:

Transfer of Energy

  • Energy is a property of many substances and is associated with heat, light, electricity, mechanical motion, sound, nuclei, and the nature of a chemical. Energy is transferred in many ways.
  • Heat moves in predictable ways, flowing from warmer objects to cooler ones, until both reach the same temperature.
  • Light interacts with matter by transmission (including refraction), absorption, or scattering (including reflection). To see an object, light from that object--emitted by or scattered from it--must enter the eye.
  • Electrical circuits provide a means of transferring electrical energy when heat, light, sound, and chemical changes are produced.
  • In most chemical and nuclear reactions, energy is transferred into or out of a system. Heat, light, mechanical motion, or electricity might all be involved in such transfers.
  • The sun is a major source of energy for changes on the earth's surface. The sun loses energy by emitting light. A tiny fraction of that light reaches the earth, transferring energy from the sun to the earth. The sun's energy arrives as light with a range of wavelengths, consisting of visible light, infrared, and ultraviolet radiation.

Read the entire National Science Education Standards online for free or register to download the free PDF. The content standards are found in Chapter 6.

Author and Copyright

Carolee Barber and Judy Ridgway, formerly of Eisenhower National Clearinghouse for Science and Mathematics Education, Instructional Resources. Carolee Barber was a science education resource specialist at ENC. She has taught a variety of science courses and worked for a conservation organization. Judy Ridgway was ENC's Assistant Director of Instructional Resources. She is a veteran educator in the biological sciences.

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Copyright March 2005 - The Ohio State University. Last updated September 19, 2010. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0424671 and since September 1, 2009 Grant No. 0840824. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.