Energy Skate Park Basics Energy Exploration

Jessica Colonel, Hunter College
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Activity , Simulation
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 resource is a 6-page activity for students that will guide them through the use of the PhET simulation Energy Skate Park: Basics as they explore kinetic, potential, thermal and total energy. The activity guides students through three explorations and a culminating activity.  The explorations are about the relationship between speed, potential energy and kinetic energy, the relationship between mass and energy, and the role of friction in energy conversions. The culminating activity has students apply their knowledge to design a working loop-de-loop skater track.

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Middle School
Access Restrictions

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

Performance Expectations

MS-PS3-1 Construct and interpret graphical displays of data to describe the relationships of kinetic energy to the mass of an object and to the speed of an object.

Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on descriptive relationships between kinetic energy and mass separately from kinetic energy and speed. Examples could include riding a bicycle at different speeds, rolling different sizes of rocks downhill, and getting hit by a wiffle ball versus a tennis ball.

Assessment Boundary: none

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
This activity specifically asks students to use information from the provided dynamic graphs to describe the relationships among mass, speed, height, kinetic energy and potential energy. In this activity, students do not construct their own graphs.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
The guiding questions in this activity ask students to use information from the graphs provided to answer scientific questions about the relationships between variables. To give students an opportunity to reflect more deeply on the implications of the data they collect, and on their own explanations, have students work through the activity in pairs to create consensus explanations. Have them share their explanations during a whole-class discussion. Then have them work in small groups for the culminating activity of designing a roller coaster. Consider extending the activity to include an engineering design phase in which students actually build and test the roller coaster they design, using real objects, such as pipe insulation and marbles.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
This activity does not define or describe what "kinetic energy", "potential energy" or "friction" actually are. A teacher will need to guide students to understanding of these vocabulary terms, through whole-class discussion, demos, and/or additions to the activity handout. This activity could be used either after students have had some experiences with these concepts, or as a jumping-off point for them. For example, after exploration phase #1, a teacher could pause for whole-class discussion, and ask students: "According to what the model is showing, what does kinetic energy seem to be related to? What does potential energy seem to be related to?" The idea about a change in motion energy always being linked to a change in other energy can also be brought to the fore during exploration #2 about friction. A teacher will need to add questions to the activity sheet, or have a class discussion, so as to make explicit the idea that information in column #4 ("What is happening to the energy levels?") shows a cause-effect relationship. Students may otherwise copy information from graphs without actually thinking about or noticing that a relationship exists.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this crosscutting concept, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
The activity asks students to use the dynamic graphs to track energy conversions, but energy transfer from place to place is not addressed. Have students specify the elements of the system modeled in this simulation--they may not all choose the same system, which could lead to an interesting discussion. Have them consider cases in which there is energy transfer across the system boundary, e.g. "Where does the thermal energy from friction actually go?"

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: This activity aligns well with the performance indicator, prompting students to make connections between kinetic energy, speed and mass, and to interpret graphical representations of these quantities. The activity directly relates to the Practice, and strongly implies ideas about the Disciplinary Core Idea and the Cross-cutting Concept. These ideas can easily be brought to the fore (see Teacher Tips for those sections, above).

  • Instructional Supports: This activity is based on a physics-realistic model that allows students to explore changes in energy as they "happen". Students' prior knowledge can come into play when students are asked to make predictions before trying new sections of the simulation. To improve students' opportunities to express, clarify and justify their ideas, see the Tips for the Practice, above. This activity does not currently offer ideas for differentiation. Teachers could pre-select partners, or work themselves with a small group. Other lesson plans available for this simulation, especially lesson plans marked for high school, can give ideas for extensions for students ready to exceed the standard.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: The activity packet is meant for students, and therefore does not contain suggestions about monitoring progress, nor does it have answer keys, rubrics, or exemplars. The activity packet could be collected, and students' written answers to questions assessed by the teacher. The problem with this is that a teacher won't have access to student thinking until the whole activity is over, and students' writing may or may not accurately reflect their thinking. To formatively assess, have students break after each segment of the activity, to discuss and work together to develop written representations, perhaps on whiteboards or chart paper, that they can share and discuss with the whole group.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: PhET simulations are robust, reliable and well executed. This activity packet was written for the Java version of Energy Skate Park: Basics. An HTML5 version is now also available; the layout is slightly different, so portions of the activity packet would need to be re-written, but the simulation works the same way. This activity has students working individually on their own computers. It could probably be done by pairs of students working together as long as they are good about sharing the controls.