Energy Forms and Transfer in Science 4

Grade level: Grade 4 Science

Topic: Energy Forms and Changes

Misconception: That energy is a “thing” in and of itself; it does not come in a variety of forms. That energy cannot be transferred from one object to another.

While students generally understand that adding heat warms a material and removing heat (“adding cold” i.e., ice) cools a material, the concepts of various forms of energy and energy transfer are much more abstract, and are likely to cause misconceptions and misunderstandings for students. The lesson I am outlining corresponds to the British Columbia fourth grade science curriculum (Big Idea: Energy can be transformed/Content: Energy has various forms; energy is conserved; devices that transform energy).

• Students will be able to demonstrate an understanding of different forms of energy.
• Students will be able to demonstrate how energy transfers from one object to another.
• Students will be able to explain the energy system they created in terms of energy input, energy output, and energy changes

• Chart paper, Pens (x6)
• Computers to run PhET activity (requires Java Runtime Environment)

Step one: Generate ideas related to current concept(s)
Supporting inquiry: Students will be asked to respond to and develop hypotheses regarding the following questions:
• Question 1: What is energy input? What is energy output?
• Question 2: Does energy come in various forms?
• Question 3: Can energy be transferred from one object to another?

To complete this portion of the lesson, students will work in small groups (three to four students). Six stations will be set-up around the classroom with a piece of chart paper in the middle of the station (paper could also be hung on walls around classroom). Two stations will have question 1 written at the top of the chart paper, two stations will have question 2 written at the top of the chart paper, and two stations will have question 3 written at the top of the chart paper. Each group will have five minutes (time adjusted as necessary) at each station to brainstorm, discuss, and record ideas related to the question at the top of their chart paper. Groups will rotate three times so that each group will answer each of the three questions. At the end of the third rotation, each group will report out the ideas shared on the chart that they are currently at.

Step two: Hypothesize
Each group will be asked to create a hypothesis for each of the three questions. Their hypothesis can be based on their own ideas generated during the chart stations, or on the ideas of others. Students are welcome to walk around and look at the ideas generated at any of the chart paper stations to help them develop their hypotheses.

Step three (…to the computers!):
(Teachers may prefer students to work individually or in pairs at this point, depending on class composition, independence, and availability of computers)
Activity: PhET “Energy Forms and Changes” simulation  “Intro”
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Students will begin by exploring energy input, output and conservation, as well as thermal energy, by interacting with the “Intro” simulation. In this simulation, students experiment with heating and cooling iron, brick, and water, and are able to add or remove energy by heating (visual: fire) or cooling (visual: ice) the materials given. By clicking the “Energy Symbols” box, students are able to watch the transfer of energy as the temperature of the materials increases or decreases.

Step four (still on computers):
Activity: PhET “Energy Forms and Changes” simulation  “Energy Systems”
Once students have completed the initial “Intro” to the “Energy Forms and Changes” simulation, students will click on the “Energy Systems” tab at the top left of the page to take them to the second simulation. This simulation allows students to see in more detail how energy is transferred and transformed as it moves between objects. Students build their own systems using a variety of energy sources, changers, and users, allowing students to opportunity to visually follow the transfer of energy throughout the system they have created.
Systems may be constructed using the following materials:
• wheel (turned by water, steam, bicycle), solar panel
• water tap, sunshine [with or without clouds], kettle, bicycle with rider
• container of water, regular light bulb, energy smart light bulb.

Step five: Re-evaluate ideas
Once students have completed both simulations, they will return to their hypothesis groups to re-evaluate their original hypotheses since gaining experience and knowledge while participating in the two simulations. The teacher will circulate to have each group explain how and why their original hypotheses changed after exploring “Energy Forms and Changes.”

A follow-up activity could be to have students complete a written response to answer the questions originally posed above (in step one), or to explain how their personal hypotheses changed throughout the course of the lesson. This would provide the teacher with individual feedback regarding understanding and possible continued misconceptions, as well as reconnect students to the original questions one more time.

Theory behind it:
Xiang and Passmore (2015) address the fact that the focus for science education has shifted “…from typical classroom practice that emphasizes the acquisition of content to a classroom in which students are active participants in making sense of the science they are learning” (p. 311). One of the leading principles discussed, behind this shift, is model-based inquiry, which can extend to include simulations. Through constructing, applying, and modifying models, students are given the opportunity to actively engage in the learning process, in addition to discussing, negotiating, and re-evaluating their conceptual models with peers (Xiang and Passmore, 2015). Finkelstein, Perkins, Adams, Kohl, & Podolefsky (2005) found that when the right learning environment was created, simulations could be equally effective, if not more effective, learning tools than traditional laboratory equipment “both in developing student facility with real equipment and at fostering student conceptual understanding” (p. 1-2). By integrating digital technology, not only can teachers access innovative and immersive learning environments for their students, but a number of factors can also be addressed, such as interest, motivation, and feasibility.

Srinivasan et al., (2006) highlight that “generally speaking, it is less expensive to develop a simulation than to provide real experience” (p. 137). While Srinivasan, et al. point out that this is especially clear in cases like cockpit simulators, this observation could be applied to many different science simulations, including the above PhET simulation used to teach fourth grade students about energy changes and transfer. While the PhET simulation is free (assuming school have access to computers and the internet), the time and cost associated with setting up a lab experience of the same depth would make the “real life” version of the simulations offered above unfeasible. In addition to providing an experience that would not be feasible without digital technology, novelty and interest, both addressed by Srinivasan et al. (2006) as motivational variables, are targeted in the simulations provided by PhET as well. Students are given the opportunity to explore science using a digital simulation which has the potential to increase interest and motivation as they actively engage with a simulated learning experience that would not have been possible in traditional elementary classroom settings.


Energy forms and changes. (n.d.). Phet Interactive Simulations, University of Colorado. Retrieved from

Finkelstein, N.D., Perkins, K.K., Adams, W., Kohl, P., & Podolefsky, N. (2005). When learning about the real world is better done virtually: A study of substituting computer simulations for laboratory equipment. Physics Education Research, 1(1), 1-8.

Science 4: Big idea and content. (n.d.). British Columbia Ministry of Education. Retrieved from

Srinivasan, S., Perez, L. C., Palmer, R., Brooks, D., Wilson, K., & Fowler. D. (2006). Reality versus simulation. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 15(2), 137-141.

Xiang, L., & Passmore, C. (2015). A framework for model-based inquiry through agent-based programming. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 24(2-3), 311-329.


  1. Hi Mary,
    Great detailed lesson.
    I was wondering your thoughts on the Srinivasan et al., (2006) article on the cockpit simulators that reported students did not feel the simulators were as helpful to their learning as being in a real cockpit, while the expert pilots said the simulators were great and helped them learn in new situations. In one of my posts, I hypothesized that perhaps the expert pilots had a much better kinesthetic orientation of an actual cockpit and therefore could transfer their understanding of the cockpit to the simulator and that perhaps the students who did not have that bodily-kinesthetic understanding of the cockpit felt the simulations were lacking for that reason?

    Perhaps simulation is best used as a training tool for pilots once they have been in a real cockpit enough times to be able to transfer the sensation of the cockpit to the simulation?
    I have to say personally I could understand this feeling for new pilots. My husband loves using cockpit simulators (he has never flown a real plane) but I have to say I would not be willing to jump into an airplane with him if he had never trained on an actual plane. I wonder if the feeling of simulator success is directly relational to the severity of the result if something messes up.
    Although simulated surgeries are supposed to be an excellent training ground for new surgeons I would be worried about being the first actual patient. Is this because I have not fully grasped the success of simulated training? so many questions.

  2. Hi Catherine,

    I found the article written by Srinivasan et al. (2006) very interesting as well. I really like your hypothesis that “perhaps the expert pilots had a much better kinesthetic orientation of an actual cockpit and therefore could transfer their understanding of the cockpit to the simulator and that perhaps the students who did not have that bodily-kinesthetic understanding of the cockpit felt the simulations were lacking for that reason.” I had not considered cockpit simulation training from this angle, but it certainly makes sense. As I have no interest in flying an actual plane (the idea actually terrifies me), the option to “’try” flying a plane from the safety of a simulator seems like a wonderful idea. Having said that, I can imagine for students who are enthusiastic about flying, they would want to experience the “real thing” rather than a simulated version that they cannot compare yet to actually flying in a genuine environment. It is an important consideration that pilots with experience can perhaps make the connection from the cockpit to the simulator more easily as they already have the experience and knowledge behind them to base the new aspects of the simulation on. Perhaps it is easier to connect simulated flying to a real experience when a person actually has the “real experience” behind them already, rather than feeling “short changed” by the simulated experience.

    I laughed when I read your comment about flying with your husband. I have to admit, there is no chance of me flying with someone who has only had simulator training. I have anxiety about flying at the best of times! Similarly, I would also appreciate my surgical doctor having some “real” experience before performing a surgery on me. I love the idea of simulated learning environments, but I also love the idea of “real life” experience when it comes to training people who have others’ lives in their hands, so to speak. As you stated, perhaps I too “have not fully grasped the success of simulated training.”


  3. Hi Mary,

    I enjoyed your post because the lesson is easy to follow and clearly supported by theory and research! I feel like the technology tools you chose to incorporate are ideal because it allows students to “visualize” energy and what it actually looks like and does. Great work!

  4. Hi Mary,

    Your lesson was very clearly laid out and showed a very unique way of addressing energy with a visualization. This kind of visualization is so valuable due to the high cost of actually going through the motions of creating this experiment. With all the paper planes being flown around my classroom, I think this would be a very engaging activity to try with them.

    1. Thank you, Tyler. The more I consider virtual labs or simulated learning environments in science, the more I realize how lucky we are to be able to access these resources. The more I read about the benefits, like the amount of time (prep/clean-up) and money that can be saved, the ability for students to attempt what would otherwise be considered dangerous experiments, or to repeat experiments to gain confidence/understanding, the more I see what an incredibly important role virtual labs play in our classrooms today!

  5. Hi Mary,

    Thank you for your lesson on this topic that spans our curricula: energy.

    The lesson begins with the knowledge of a student misconception to help guide instruction. The idea of “things” versus “processes” in science is one that Micki Chi suggests is really important to understanding students’ challenges in understanding science. It calls into question, for example, how children might respond to the question: “What is energy?” “What is electricity?” or “What is heat” (eg. a thing that can be contained or energy transfer)? She wrote a seminal paper with Jim Slotta (of WISE) that is recommended for those interested in exploring this foundational problem: Chi, M. T., Slotta, J. D., & De Leeuw, N. (1994). From things to processes: A theory of conceptual change for learning science concepts. Learning and instruction, 4(1), 27-43.

    It might be interesting to explore the question with your children (what is energy) and see their examples they come up with. We might also reflect on textbook questions which may lead students to think of concepts in science as things or processes (Eg. evolution). For those interested in the changing ideas on the gene, check out Evelyn Fox Keller’s talk in Halifax:

    Thank you Mary for introducing this topic to frame your TELE, Samia

    1. Thank you for the links, Dr. Khan – I will definitely check them out! I really like your idea to simply explore the question with my students to start. This could potentially show me where misconceptions are and kids always love to share what they know, so I think they would love to do this brainstorming introductory activity as well.

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