Document Type


Publication Date

January 2016


Energy is a crosscutting concept in science and features prominently in national science education documents. In the Next Generation Science Standards, the primary conceptual learning goal is for learners to conserve energy as they track the transfers and transformations of energy within, into, or out of the system of interest in complex physical processes. As part of tracking energy transfers among objects, learners should (i) distinguish energy from matter, including recognizing that energy flow does not uniformly align with the movement of matter, and should (ii) identify specific mechanisms by which energy is transferred among objects, such as mechanical work and thermal conduction. As part of tracking energy transformations within objects, learners should (iii) associate specific forms with specific models and indicators (e.g., kinetic energy with speed and/or coordinated motion of molecules, thermal energy with random molecular motion and/or temperature) and (iv) identify specific mechanisms by which energy is converted from one form to another, such as incandescence and metabolism. Eventually, we may hope for learners to be able to optimize systems to maximize some energy transfers and transformations and minimize others, subject to constraints based in both imputed mechanism (e.g., objects must have motion energy in order for gravitational energy to change) and the second law of thermodynamics (e.g., heating is irreversible). We hypothesize that a subsequent goal of energy learning—innovating to meet socially relevant needs—depends crucially on the extent to which these goals have been met.


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The following article appeared in The Physics Teacher, Volume 54, Issue 2, 2016 and may be found at
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