ELeVATE: Investigating How Students Build an Integrated Understanding of Energy Over Time

This National Science Foundation-funded CREATE project, with partners from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and the Leibnitz Institute for Science and Mathematics Education in Germany, is developing both innovative curriculum and a set of assessments to determine which instructional approach is most effective in helping middle school students build a robust understanding of energy. The goal is for students to understand energy as both a disciplinary core idea within individual areas of science and a crosscutting concept that spans the sciences. Newly developed assessments will capture student learning, student learning progressions and student self-efficacy—the degree to which students feel confident in their ability to apply their understanding of energy concepts to explain phenomena they encounter at school and in the world.


Energy is a critical concept across all science disciplines and as such serves as both a disciplinary core idea and a crosscutting concept in science education. This project aims to give students an integrated understanding of the energy concept and 
a sense of self-efficacy in applying this concept. An integrated understanding means that students can see how ideas are related to each other in ways that allow them to explain phenomena and solve problems that occur in their everyday lives, as well as to learn other science ideas. Developing such an integrated understanding entails the ability to connect multiple ideas about the energy concept to make sense of and solve authentic problems in a variety of contexts. It is this integrated understanding of the energy concept that students need to develop. However, little is known about how to teach and assess student understanding of energy in this manner. Instead, too often instructional materials cover many topics at a superficial level, focus on technical vocabulary, fail to consider a student’s prior knowledge and provide few opportunities for students to develop explanations of phenomena.

This research study is exploring how students build an integrated understanding of energy over time when they are exposed to purposefully designed instruction. Teachers and students participating in the study will follow one of three different approaches to teaching energy; researchers will closely monitor the development of students’ understanding of energy, including their ability to apply that understanding in future energy-related learning as well as their sense of self-efficacy in using the energy concept to make sense of phenomena. Two of the instructional approaches have been previously developed and tested in middle schools; the third approach is new and strongly aligned with the National Research Council’s Framework for K-12 Science Education and the Next Generation Science Standards.

In order to complete the study, researchers must modify existing instructional materials to concretize the instructional approaches that will be studied, provide professional development to the partner teachers and pilot the new materials, modifying them as needed, and develop high-quality assessments and other data-collection instruments to capture information about student learning, their learning progressions, their preparedness for future learning and their perceptions about their ability to apply their understanding of the energy concept to explain phenomena that they encounter at school and in the world.

When completed, this study will provide unprecedented new knowledge about how students learn and apply their learning about a fundamental concept in science and about how teachers can teach energy concepts more effectively. Three instructional approaches will be empirically tested, and new assessment and research instruments will have been designed, tested and applied in representative classroom settings.

Senior researchers:

Joseph Krajcik, Director, CREATE for STEM Institute, Michigan State University

David Fortus, Senior Scientist, Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel

Knut Neumann, Director, Department of Physics Education, Leibnitz Institute for Science and Mathematics Education, Germany

Jeff Nordine, Chief Scientist, San Antonio Children's Museum; visiting professor, Leibnitz Institute for Science and Mathematics Education, Germany