Looking Through the Energy Lens: Marble Collisions

Sara Lacy Roger Tobin Jeffrey Nordine Sally Crissman NSTA
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Article , Lesson/Lesson Plan , Activity
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be “fully aligned,” the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.



This article helps teachers understand the complexity of teaching about energy and gives suggestions for making this topic accessible to elementary students. The focus is on introducing the concepts of energy and energy transfer through marble collisions. More information about how these lessons were developed and videos that show energy transfer may be found through the TERC and Clark University site linked here.

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Upper Elementary
  • Grade 4
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

4-PS3-3 Ask questions and predict outcomes about the changes in energy that occur when objects collide.

Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on the change in the energy due to the change in speed, not on the forces, as objects interact.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include quantitative measurements of energy.

This resource was not designed to build towards this performance expectation, but can be used to build towards it using the suggestions provided below.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
This lesson provides a foundation for students to begin to explore this performance expectation. Students describe that a moving marble has energy, and it can give its energy to another marble when they collide. Students should be given the opportunity to explore using various scenarios to develop questions and predict outcomes. They may try rolling different numbers of marbles or different sizes or changing the configuration of the track. The track could be the center groove in a plastic ruler, some foam pipe insulation sliced lengthwise to form a U-shaped track, or wooden cove molding. Before beginning this lesson, the class should discuss how they know an object has energy. Brainstorming in a web, KWL, or KLEWS chart will help students understand that motion is one indicator that an object has energy. As the marble collision lesson is introduced, the teacher should provide opportunities for students to predict outcomes and encourage students to look for patterns.When students are working on their illustrations, teacher may want to emphasize that they are creating their own models of energy in motion, and are using drawings as a form of representation.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource was not designed to build towards this science and engineering practice, but can be used to build towards it using the suggestions provided below.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
In this lesson, students begin to describe patterns of energy transfer using various models. Students learn that a moving marble can cause another marble to move. To fully address the practice, students should be encouraged to ask their own questions involving different variables, such as marble size or number of marbles. They may also observe relationships between the launch height of the marble and the energy in the marble. Cause and effect relationships may be more readily observed in a data table or graph. Videos of Rube Goldberg machines, bowling, or billiards may be used to further develop cause and effect relationships in the context of energy transfer. Students may extend the lesson by using marbles in a Rube Goldberg machine.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
Colliding objects are the focus of this lesson. Students may observe that sound is created by the rolling marbles and the collisions. The article suggests that exploring the idea of heating air during a collision should wait until later grades. To demonstrate how collisions can transfer energy into heat, one might consider using the "Ball Bearings Burning Paper" demonstration performed in this YouTube video: youtu.be/COWOv8aOoSU

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
This lesson provides an introduction to the concept of energy transfer using collisions. The discussion could be extended to trace the source of the energy back to the sun. Energy for the collision comes from the student's arm, which gets energy from food, which gets energy from the sun. Further explorations of this crosscutting concept might include wind-up toys, circuits, or solar cookers.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: This lesson provides a foundation for the phenomenon of energy transfer, incorporating the disciplinary core idea and crosscutting concepts of energy. Students explain energy transfer in terms of energy gains and losses in the marble collisions.

  • Instructional Supports: This lesson includes many ideas for scaffolding the challenging concept of energy transfer. The guiding questions, "Where does the energy come from?" and "Where does the energy go?" create a framework for discussions. Students are encouraged to represent their ideas in multiple ways, through discussion, pictures, graphs, tables, and written descriptions. The "energy bars" in the lesson provide a way for students to collect data. Opportunities should be provided for students to make sense of their data orally and in writing. More information about energy in grades 3-5, including videos of energy transfer, can be found here: https://external-wiki.terc.edu/display/EnergyLens/Rethinking+How+to+Teach+Energy. The video of a marble collision in slow motion may be helpful during class discussions.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: This article provides many examples of the development of student explanations of energy and energy transfer. It also includes possible misconceptions: “I don’t think the ball is giving energy to the [bowling] pin, I think it’s just like making it be forced to fall down.” As a written assessment, the lesson should be extended to allow students to ask questions, make predictions, and develop explanations, based on their observations of marble collisions. For example, a student might make a claim that a large marble transfers more energy to a resting marble than a small marble. This could be supported with evidence, based on the speed or distance traveled by the smaller marble. If the class has created a web or chart with initial ideas about energy, they should revisit the chart and add new ideas and questions.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: This resource does not include a technologically interactive component.