The Springy Pen Lab

Sara Leins
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Experiment/Lab 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 is a lesson about elastic potential energy and conservation of energy as it relates to springs. The lab is performed with the spring from a push pen. In addition to the lab handouts, this resource also includes teaching tips. 

The link to the video in the “video introduction” section seems to be broken, so here is the link to the pogo stick video you will want to use at the beginning of your class before your students get to work on the lab:

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • High School
Access Restrictions

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

Performance Expectations

HS-PS3-1 Create a computational model to calculate the change in the energy of one component in a system when the change in energy of the other component(s) and energy flows in and out of the system are known.

Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on explaining the meaning of mathematical expressions used in the model.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment is limited to basic algebraic expressions or computations; to systems of two or three components; and to thermal energy, kinetic energy, and/or the energies in gravitational, magnetic, or electric fields.

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

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
This lesson should come in a sequence after students have worked with springs, potential energy, gravitational potential energy and the law of conservation of energy. The author misuses the term “equilibrium” when discussing the spring being in a compressed position, in this example the equilibrium state should be the uncompressed position. This activity has students measure the distance the spring compresses and then also measure the height to which the pen jumps after the spring is released. It has students calculate the initial vertical velocity, which is good, but it fails to explicitly have the students realize that the spring compression directly relates to the maximum height the pen jumps to through the law of conservation of energy. The instructor will want to modify the hand out so that the students are encouraged to consider how the initial spring potential energy and the pen’s final gravitational potential energy are related. That relation will allow the students to compare the theoretical jumping height to the measured jumping height. This is shown in the sample lab write up that students may use as a guide, but it isn’t explicitly addressed in their lab activity handout.

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
In section 3 (Springy Pen Lab Activity), the author uses some confusing terminology. She mentions the compressed spring being in its equilibrium position, but equilibrium would be when the spring is in its uncompressed state. The physics involved is setting spring potential energy equal to the gravitational potential energy at the maximum height that the pen jumps up to. This lab describes in detail the data each student needs to collect and how to use the data in the calculations. Teachers may also decide to make the lab more challenging by not using the detailed instructions for students and rather give them the general purpose of the lab and have them construct their own procedures.

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
A beneficial class discussion about system behavior could center around the law of conservation of energy and the trials that do not launch straight up. The discussion should focus on why those trials should not be included in the data used for the calculations.

Crosscutting Concepts

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

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
To fully address the cross cutting concept, the instructor should include questions about assumptions (some examples: the pen launches straight up, the spring compresses equally each time, air resistance is negligible, the students don’t impart motion to the pen) that are being made by the students and how those assumptions and simplifications affect the outcome and reliability of the model. The instructor should ensure that students are aware of the initial conditions. The initial conditions will have the pen’s spring compressed the same amount for each trial, the pen should be pointed vertically, and students should simply release the pen without imparting any additional force or motion to it. The resource has students analyze the inputs (initial spring compression, and zero kinetic energy) as well as the outputs (maximum height reached by the pen) so that the motion can be modeled using conservation of energy.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: The practice is addressed by having students use mathematics to make predictions about the height a clicker pen will jump to when its spring is compressed and then released. To make that prediction, students need to use concepts of energy and the conservation of energy, and in doing so, they are engaged with the disciplinary core ideas. The cross cutting concept of systems can be addressed if the instructor has their students analyze and discuss any assumptions that were used in their calculations and how those assumptions affect the outcome.

  • Instructional Supports: Students use mathematics and the conservation of energy to make predictions about the motion of a clicker pen as well as what assumptions are used in order to work with the system. The lesson connects to real life through the use of an everyday object, the pen, as the subject of the lab, and through the introductory video about pogo sticks. Likewise, the lesson contains a list of vocabulary word examples to help guide students during the closure activity. This resource does not provide recommendations for differentiation of this activity.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: This activity has students make mathematical predictions to describe the phenomena of the height that a spring loaded pen can “jumping” to by applying their core ideas about energy. The activity ends in a class discussion where students need to identify vocabulary relevant to the activity, however, this could be deepened to show student understanding of that vocabulary. The lesson falls short in a few areas. There isn’t a rubric for the teacher or students to use as a guide, but there is a sample lab write up for the students to use as an example. The formative assessment during the activity is limited to the instructor circulating among the lab groups to ask and answer questions.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: There is one YouTube video that will be played during this lesson.