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

Project Overview

The Energy project is a four-year, $1.5 million project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). This project builds upon prior research into how students learn the energy concept. Within the Framework for K-12 Science Education and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), this project aims to create a more integrated understanding of energy for middle school students by introducing a systems perspective.


Big Ideas

Building an Integrated Understanding

The main goal of the Energy project is to help middle school students achieve an integrated understanding of energy concepts. There are five key ideas about energy that researchers have identified as underlying an integrated understanding. These include:

  1. energy is manifested in different forms and stored in different places
  2. energy can be transformed from one form into another
  3. energy can be transferred from one place to another
  4. whenever energy is transformed or transferred some energy is converted into heat that spreads out (dissipation)
  5. the overall amount of energy in an isolated system is conserved.

In shorter terms, the five key ideas are: energy forms, transformation, transfer, dissipation, and conservation. Through previous experiments, researchers have found that most students fail to completely understand all of these concepts and may struggle in one or more areas. The hope is that by implementing new teaching approaches and developing tools that can accurately assess student understanding of energy, more students will be able to understand all five energy concepts.

Preparing Students for Future Learning

Another central focus of this project is preparation for future learning. Energy is a critical concept across all science disciplines and is a key element in developing scientific literacy. Analyzing how students build understandings during the course of instruction can provide insight into preparedness to learn in the future. Usually, what happens is that an idea is presented at one grade level and a similar idea is presented at a higher grade level without building on the previous idea. Because of this, students fail to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the concept. Researchers want to know: what exactly promotes that next level of understanding? In this project the goal is for students to be able to use the knowledge and skills from this curriculum in other classes. They will need to connect ideas to each other to recognize energy-related problems and solve those problems across a variety of contexts. Achieving an integrated understanding of energy and the way it affects everyday phenomena would better prepare middle school students for future learning in STEM-related courses.

Supporting Self-efficacy for All Students

The third major focus of the Energy project involves creating a sense of self-efficacy and empowerment among students. Self-efficacy refers to the beliefs that people have about their capabilities to complete specific tasks and reach specific goals. People tend to engage in tasks about which they feel confident and avoid those they do not; the same can be said of students. It is important that instruction on energy provides students with opportunities to succeed in understanding and using the energy concept. Also, instruction must require sustained effort to succeed so that students will remain engaged and can feel proud of their accomplishments. While this project focuses on urban school systems, which serve racially and culturally diverse students, they represent key demographic characteristics that are relative to the broader US population. By empowering all students in these areas and giving them an equal chance, researchers hope to help produce a population of citizens capable of continuing further STEM learning.


The Energy Curriculum

The Energy project’s curriculum builds off of previous research. One unit about energy, Investigating and Questioning our World through Science and Technology (IQWST), has already been published, tested, and found to be meaningful for learning about energy concepts. Centered strongly on NGSS teachings, researchers now want to revise those concepts and talk about energy in a different way. They want to look at energy not as forms and transformation between those forms, but rather as energy transfer both within and between systems. They also want to introduce the concept of fields and how energy works within fields.

The Units

When completed, the curriculum will consist of three different units and teaching approaches.

  1. IQWST – the already-published unit that has proven to be meaningful. It focuses on teaching energy forms and transformation in everyday phenomena.
  2. IQWST+ (IQWST Plus) – involves beginning with forms but moving quickly to energy transfer, conservation, and dissipation (fields and dynamic systems) in everyday phenomena.
  3. Transfer approach – emphasizes a systems-based analysis in which energy is introduced as a single property of a system that can be manifested and measured in different ways. It contextualizes the ideas in phenomena that are engaging to learners.

The units are designed similarly and have minute differences according to the teaching approach. They are all eight weeks long and focus on exploring and explaining daily phenomena. For example, one prompt may ask students to consider the question: “Why do some things stop and some keep going?” Each unit will use a wide variety of materials that may include curricular materials, computer simulations, and other technological tools.

Creating Measurable Outcomes

Professional development will be done with teachers for each approach; it will focus on the characteristics of the particular instructional approach each teacher will use and how it is manifested in the unit he or she teaches. Assessments will be performed throughout each unit to measure growth in student improvement and understanding. A large part of this project is the development of tools that can successfully measure growth. Finally, the outcomes of each unit will be compared to determine which approach was most successful.


Energy Partners

This project is a collaboration between CREATE for STEM Institute at Michigan State University, the Leibniz-Institute for Science and Mathematics Education (IPN) in Germany, and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. Dr. Joseph Krajcik, director of CREATE for STEM, is the project leader. Dr. David Fortus from the Weizmann Institute and Dr. Knut Neumann and Dr. Jeff Nordine from IPN will join him. The project’s Advisory Committee includes Dr. Helen R. Quinn, Dr. Jim Pellegrino, Dr. Ramon Lopez, Dr. Melanie Cooper, Dr. JoEllen Roseman, and Dr. Ross Nehm. Currently, the two participating school districts are Grand Rapids Public Schools and Ionia Public Schools.


Energy Milestones

During its first year, researchers on the Energy project worked on modifying, testing, and revising existing instructional materials in addition to developing, testing, and revising assessment instruments. That continued into this year, which also marked the beginning of teacher professional development efforts and the first pilot tests. Currently, researchers are only testing teaching approaches two and three. They are pilot testing in one school in Grand Rapids and one in Ionia. In Grand Rapids they are testing in a sixth grade classroom and in Ionia they are testing in two eighth grade classrooms.

Next year, they plan to scale up and perform the actual experiment, using all three planned teaching approaches, and collect data for analysis. The fourth and final year will wrap up professional development, data analysis, and instrument refinement. The goal is for all materials to be disseminated by summer, 2018.


Design Principles

The design principles and goals used to guide the development of the materials include:

  • Building an integrated understanding of energy that prepares students for future STEM learning
  • Designing curricular materials to help students meet specific performance expectations
  • Designing assessment items that can monitor student learning across time
  • Creating professional development programs to assist teachers in educating students about energy
  • Using 3-dimensional learning, driving questions and phenomena to help build understanding
  • Fostering a sense of energy-related self-efficacy


Links to the Next Generation Science Standards

Energy is a critical concept across all science disciplines and serves as both a disciplinary core idea and a crosscutting concept. Building an integrated understanding of energy is a key element in developing scientific literacy.