Teaching about the nature of energy is supported by 8 key concepts:

1.1 Energy is a quantity that is transferred from system to system. Energy is the ability of a system to do work. A system has done work if it has exerted a force on another system over some distance. When this happens, energy is transferred from one system to another. At least some of the energy is also transformed from one type into another during this process. One can keep track of how much energy transfers into or out of a system.

Energy is a word with many meanings yet no universal definition

In our daily lives, we constantly interact with different forms of energy. Energy is contained in gasoline, cat food and stars, and energy moves from one form to another via wind, motion and heat. So where to begin teaching something that is both intuitively obvious yet abstract and complex?

This principle helps students become familiar with some of the fundamentals about energy, much of which is based in physics. We want students to become comfortable with the concept that energy comes in many forms, can be transferred from one system to another, and can be measured.

While it is difficult to define the term energy, it is not difficult to identify, describe and measure specific types of energy.

Mechanical energy is is the energy of mechanical systems, such as a ball rolling on a ramp, or a marble fired from a slingshot. Mechanical energy can be in three forms:
  • Gravitational potential energy is the energy of an object or system due to gravitational attraction. For example, we can calculate the mechanical energy of a ball that is going to be released from a high window, or the gravitational potential energy of the water in a reservoir used for hydropower.
  • Kinetic energy is energy due to the motion of an object. A speeding car, a baseball lofting through the air, and a skier sliding downhill are all examples of objects with kinetic energy. Flywheels are a method of storing kinetic energy.
  • Elastic potential energy is the energy stored in a stretched spring, rubber band, or other elastic material.

Thermal energy is the energy that results from kinetic energy of molecules of a substance. A hot tea kettle has more thermal energy than a cold one. Objects that feel warm are emitting thermal energy, and the transfer of thermal energy causes changes in temperature.

Radiant energy is the energy from electro-magnetic radiation, such as visible light, microwaves, or x-rays.

Chemical energy is energy stored in chemical bonds. Gasoline and food are examples of compounds with chemical potential energy.

Nuclear energy is a name given to the energy that results from mass-to-energy conversion during nuclear reactions. This is a potent and plentiful source of energy because a small amount of mass can be converted into a large amount of energy as described by Einstein's famous equation E=mc2.

Regardless of what form energy takes, energy has a numerical value that we can measure and assign to objects or systems. When the system undergoes some change, energy can be transformed from one type of energy to another.


Students can experience and recognize different forms of energy

Companion video by the Department of Energy
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Understanding how different types of energy are defined and measured offers a baseline from which to teach about other aspects of energy. The concepts of energy loss, energy transfer from one system to another, and ways to measure energy are essential concepts for teaching about energy. While it may be tempting to skip over these fundamentals and begin teaching about wind turbines and solar panels, it's important to establish a frame of reference for understanding what energy is before discussing different fuels, sources of energy, and uses of energy.

What is fascinating about energy is how one form of energy can be transformed into seemingly unrelated forms of energy. James Prescott Joule did pioneering experiments showing that a quantity of mechanical can be transformed into the same amount of thermal energy. For example, an explosion converts chemical potential energy into kinetic energy, radiant energy, and thermal energy. Radiant energy can be transformed into electrical energy by a photovoltaic cell. Thermal energy can be transformed into electrical energy by a thermo-electric generator.

In all cases of energy transformation, some energy is transformed into thermal energy. Because this energy can often not be recovered in a useful way, this thermal energy is often considered to be wasted, or lost.

Helping students understand these ideas

Misconceptions are common when it comes to understanding forms of energy. On one hand, we all have an intuitive sense of what energy is. But the science behind energy can be complex. Teachers need to find a middle ground between offering accurate explanations, while not oversimplifying or creating further misconceptions.

A common stumbling block is the concept of power and the units to describe energy and power. In the metric system, the units use to measure energy are Joules. A Joule is the amount of energy required to accelerate a 1 kg object to a speed of 2 m/s, or to lift a 1 kg object about 10 cm vertically. Calories, BTUs, and kilowatt hours are other units that can be used to measure energy.

Power, which is the rate of energy transfer, is measured in Joules per second, also called Watts. Unlike other units that describe rates (for example, miles per hour for speed, dollars per hour for wages) the unit "Watt" has the "per second" already built in to the unit. Without the familiar "per second" in the units, students often think that a Watt is a quantity of energy, rather than a rate at which energy is transferred. For example, a 100 Watt light bulb uses 100 Joules of electrical energy per second, transforming it mostly into thermal energy.

Adding to this confusion is the unit kilowatt hour. A kilowatt hour is 1000 Watts times 3600 seconds, or 3.6 million Joules. This is a common unit of energy for electric utilities to use when billing,

A similar and amusing example of the confusion around power and energy is that electric utilities are often called "power" companies, even though the product they sell is energy.


Bringing these ideas into your classroom

How does Work Work? This TED-ed video illustrates the concepts of work and power, which can help us unlock and understand many of the physical laws that govern our universe. In this lesson, Peter Bohacek explores the interplay of each concept when applied to two common objects -- a lightbulb and a grandfather clock.

As is illustrated in the TED-ed video, basic mathematical concepts can be used to understand how energy is quantified, such as measuring energy from two different forms, then converting those quantities into common units. Terms such as power (energy over time), work (force over distance) can be easily measured and calculated. All of these terms have alternate, but related, meanings in daily life, so getting students familiar with the mathematical definitions will require students to understand slightly different meanings for the same words.

Many forms of energy transformation are directly observable in the classroom, so demonstrations are an effective means to illustrate transformations between different forms of energy.


Teaching materials from the CLEAN collection


Middle school

  • The activity, Energy flows, provides a synopsis of energy basics that was written for middle school students.
  • The hands on activity, Going For A Spin - Making a Model Steam Turbine engages students in exploring how various energy sources can be used to rotate a turbine and generate electricity with a magnet.

High school

  • Tools like the Energy Unit Conversion Calculator can be used to help students compare quantities of energy in different forms. When students understand the meaning behind different units of energy, they can effectively consider the scale of energy use, which is part of Energy Principle 6.
  • A guide to the energy of the Earth is a TED-Ed video that illustrates how energy is cycled through Earth systems: atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere and biosphere.

College

  • The Solar Water Heater project allows student teams design and build solar water heating devices and gain a better understanding of the three different types of heat transfer, each of which plays a role in the solar water heater design. Note that this activity is designed for high school students but it would make an excellent lab for introductory college students.
  • Global Energy Flows allows students to analyze data about global energy sources and sinks (uses), and construct a diagram to show the relative scale and the connections between them. Discussions of scale; historical, socio-environmental, and geographic variation in this data and implications for future energy use are included.

Find activities and visuals for teaching this topic

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References

What is Energy? from EIA Energy Kids, this unit covers energy basics, types of energy, energy units and energy calculators.

PhET simulations for teaching Energy, Work and Power. Interactive simulations that allow students to "experiment" with changing variables in different energy systems.

The Physics Classroom is an online, free-to-use physics website developed primarily for high school physics students and teachers. For example, the animation of Energy Transformations for Downhill Skiing illustrates the relationship between work and energy.

Teaching About Energy - written by John Roeder, published by the American Association of Physics Teachers
This manual contains background references and activities to help teachers and students with the many concepts involved in understanding Energy. Sample student activities from the full print manual are available here. The complete manual includes sections on basic concepts in energy different forms and conversion of energy and the social problems involved with energy. Appendices for teachers include help with labs an energy concept inventory and information on student learning of the topic.