How Should We Label Different Kinds of Energy?

Type Category
Instructional Materials
Informative Text , Article
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.



In this article, author Bill Robertson describes how and why he changed his perspective on teaching energy transformation. This topic can be very challenging for elementary students and for teachers as well. Robertson provides background information and suggests a non-traditional approach to the topic. Typically we use labels such as elastic potential energy, sound energy, or kinetic energy to describe forms of energy. Robertson suggests that we instead look for evidence that energy is present or moving within a system. An inflated balloon has energy "as evidenced by new shape." This energy can be transferred to the air when the balloon is released "as evidenced by motion of air." This search for evidence will help students with the challenging task of explaining the phenomenon of energy transfer. Robertson acknowledges that there are times when labeling forms of energy is useful. It is important for educators to consider the challenges of labeling energy when developing lessons, especially in elementary school. This article might be used as a component of professional development in districts adopting the Next Generation Science Standards. An in-depth discussion of how energy transfer is currently being taught, and how the concept is addressed in NGSS might be useful before introducing the article.

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Grade 4
  • Upper Elementary
Access Restrictions

Available for purchase - The right to view, keep, and/or download material upon payment of a one-time fee.

Performance Expectations

4-PS3-4 Apply scientific ideas to design, test, and refine a device that converts energy from one form to another.

Clarification Statement: Examples of devices could include electric circuits that convert electrical energy into motion energy of a vehicle, light, or sound; and, a passive solar heater that converts light into heat. Examples of constraints could include the materials, cost, or time to design the device.

Assessment Boundary: Devices should be limited to those that convert motion energy to electric energy or use stored energy to cause motion or produce light or sound.

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 article will help teachers with the challenging task of describing energy transformation. In any device that students design to address this performance expectation, they will benefit from looking for evidence that energy is present. The teacher should be aware that there may be multiple ways to describe that energy.

4-PS3-2 Make observations to provide evidence that energy can be transferred from place to place by sound, light, heat, and electric currents.

Clarification Statement: none

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

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

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
This article provides suggestions for looking for evidence of energy transfer. It suggests that it is more important for students to observe changes than to label the forms of energy.

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 article provides examples of evidence that students may find as energy is transformed in a system. Using Robertson’s model, students could describe energy transformations as they go through an energy unit. For example, they could describe the changes in energy that occur when they light a bulb, generate electricity with a solar panel, or create a windmill. In their descriptions, students should include evidence that the energy still exists and has been transferred.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

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

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
The article encourages teachers to help students follow the transfer of energy in a system as it moves from place to place.

Crosscutting Concepts

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

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
This article provides tools for describing energy transfer.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: The three dimensions work together to support students to make sense of the phenomenon of energy transfer. Focusing on finding evidence of energy in a system allows students to avoid the pitfalls of the often confusing labels for forms of energy.

  • Instructional Supports: This article provides a framework for instruction, rather than specific lesson components.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: The primary audience for this article is the teacher, not the student.

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