An integrated understanding of energy

picture of a thunderstorm with lighting

The ELeVATE (Exploring Learning in Various Approaches to Teaching Energy) project is a six year, $1.8 million project that investigates the impact of different approaches introductory energy instruction in middle school. While a traditional approach to energy instruction relies on the idea that energy exists in various forms (e.g., kinetic, chemical, gravitational) that are transformed in phenomena, the ELeVATE project has developed a new approach to energy instruction that emphasizes the unitary nature of energy and stresses the central role of energy transfers. This new approach, called the systems-transfer approach, was developed as a response to the recommendations of the Framework for K-12 Science Education, which emphasizes that it is primarily the idea of energy transfer between systems that give energy its explanatory power and its wide-ranging applicability across scientific disciplines and everyday contexts. A key consequence of excluding the idea of energy forms is that students must learn about the role of fields in mediating interaction at a distance and that energy can be transferred between fields and objects as phenomena occur – ideas that are also emphasized in the Framework.

ELeVATE researchers have investigated how students build ideas about energy within the context of the systems-transfer approach and have compared students learning about energy in this way to students learning about energy using the more traditional forms and transformation approach. To do this, ELeVATE researchers designed and validated knowledge-in-use assessments aligned to the NGSS performance expectations, in which students blend disciplinary core ideas, science and engineering practices, and crosscutting concepts to solve contextualized problems.

ELeVATE investigations have revealed that systems-transfer students develop well-integrated knowledge around the central principle of energy transfer and successfully use this transfer-only perspective to interpret and explain phenomena. Further, systems-transfer students scored significantly higher on the NGSS-aligned knowledge-in-use assessments than a comparable group of students who learned about energy in a forms/transformation approach.

Currently, the ELeVATE group is exploring how a systems-transfer perspective supports future energy-related learning both within and across disciplines and is developing a new project for designing and testing a systems-transfer approach to energy instruction. 

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.  

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