Use these free STEM lessons and activities to help students get hands-on building, testing, and exploring the science of energy and the different types of potential and kinetic energy.
From the classic snake-in-a-can prank to stretching and shooting rubber bands across the room, bouncing a basketball, or rolling a marble down a ramp, kids know energy in motion when they see it. The world is full of energy, and energy is constantly being used, converted, and transferred between objects. Students may identify the presence of potential and kinetic energy in the movements of a roller coaster, a pendulum, or a playground swing, but there are a number of different types of potential and kinetic energy. Teaching students about the law of conservation of energy and helping them identify the specific type of energy demonstrated by objects or systems offers a wide range of hands-on learning opportunities as students build their understanding and awareness of the science of energy.
The law of conservation of energy is a fundamental principle of science. According to the law of conservation of energy, energy cannot be created or destroyed. Energy is a constant. The energy of an object may shift form, be converted or transformed into other types of energy, or be transferred to another object (or objects), but the total amount of energy in the universe remains the same.
Potential and Kinetic Energy
Many students are familiar with potential and kinetic energy to describe the energy of an object at rest or in motion. There are, however, many forms of energy that fall within the broad categories of kinetic energy and potential energy. The lessons below help educators teach about the various types of potential and kinetic energy and about mechanical energy, the sum of potential and kinetic energy in a mechanical system. In these lessons, students explore forces, what happens when one object does work upon another object, the role of mass and gravity, and how energy can be harnessed, converted, shared, and transferred.
The free STEM lessons and activities below provide hands-on learning materials to teach students about energy and to explore various types of energy and how they relate to other types of energy. In these lessons, students explore the relationship between types of energy, conservation of energy, the relationship of energy to work, and how work can transfer or change the energy of an object.
Lesson Plans and Activities to Teach About Energy
The resources below are grouped as follows:
Note: Science Buddies Lesson Plans contain materials to support educators leading hands-on STEM learning with students. Lesson Plans offer NGSS alignment, contain background materials to boost teacher confidence, even in areas that may be new to them, and include supplemental resources like worksheets, videos, discussion questions, and assessment materials. Activities are simplified explorations that can be used in the classroom or in informal learning environments. Student projects that appear below contain experiments that can be effectively adapted for use by educators for teaching about the topic.
Teach About Potential Energy
Sometimes thought of as the energy of an object at rest, potential energy is the stored energy an object has due to its position relative to other objects or due to deformation of its own shape. In exploring potential energy, students learn about elastic energy, gravitational energy, chemical energy, and nuclear energy.
Elastic energy refers to the energy stored in a stretched rubber band or other substance that is deformed and wants to return to its original shape. Elastic energy is potential energy that is converted into kinetic energy when the stretched or deformed object is released.
Because of their stretchiness (elasticity), rubber bands are often used to demonstrate elastic energy. In the Rubber Bands for Energy activity, students stretch and release rubber bands and investigate the relationship between how far the rubber band is stretched and how far it flies. This activity introduces equations for both potential and kinetic energy and allows students to see firsthand that the distance a stretched rubber band travels is related to the distance it is stretched.
Questions: Do the rubber bands fly farthest when they are pulled back more or when they are pulled back only a little bit? Is the distance the rubber bands fly at each stretch length consistent? What forces act on the rubber band as it flies through the air?
With the Build a Rubber Band-Powered Car activity, students build a car that is powered by the energy in a rubber band. When the car’s axle is turned, the rubber band is stretched, and potential energy in the form of elastic energy is stored. When the axle is released, the rubber band unwinds, the energy is converted to kinetic energy, and the car is propelled forward. Questions: What does the amount of elastic energy have to do with how fast the car goes when it is released? How does the size or length of the rubber band relate to how the rubber band car works?
With the Design a Paper Airplane Launcher lesson, students design and build a paper airplane launcher that uses the elastic energy in a stretched rubber band to catapult a plane into the air. Questions: How does a rubber band launcher differ from throwing a plane with your hand and arm in terms of the distance required for the launch?
In the Build a Popsicle Stick Catapult activity, students build a simple catapult from rubber bands, wooden craft sticks, and recycled materials. When the launching stick is pushed down, it gains potential energy, just as a rubber band does when it is stretched. When the stick is released, the energy is converted to kinetic energy and transferred to the object being launched, which is then propelled (or catapulted) from the device. Questions: If you bend the stick more, what happens when you let it go? How is the amount of potential energy calculated?
This clattering chain reaction of exploding sticks has everything to do with elastic energy, but keeping the conservation of energy in mind, where does the energy go? In the Popsicle Stick Chain Reaction activity, students carefully weave wooden craft sticks together in a manner that bends each stick. The bent sticks store potential energy while they are held in place. Once the starting stick is let go, a chain reaction occurs as the freed stick snaps back to its regular shape, and its elastic energy is converted to kinetic energy. This process repeats, and the sticks fly free in a clattering chain reaction. Questions: Where does the energy that was stored as potential energy in each bent stick end up once all the sticks have fallen to the ground? Is there more than one kind of potential energy that can be observed in this chain reaction? What happens to the potential energy if the sticks are bent so much that they stay bent or break?
Note: For additional activities related to elastic energy, see the Rubber Band STEM (Awesome Summer Science Experiments) collection.
Gravitational energy refers to the potential energy of an object in relation to another object due to gravity. On Earth, gravitational energy can be observed in the height of an object above the ground. In space, gravitational energy can be observed in the distance between objects like planets and satellites.
In the Speedy Science: How Does Constant Acceleration Affect Distances Traveled? activity, students explore the relationship between the height from which an object is dropped (or begins a descent) and the speed at which the object travels. In free-fall, gravity accelerates an object’s velocity by 9.8 meters per second (m/s) every second. In the activity, students measure how far a marble travels down a cardboard tube in one second, two seconds, etc., and correlate this with gravity. The marble in the experiment has gravitational potential energy when it is placed at the start of the ramp. Question: How would changing the height of the starting point of the ramp affect the gravitational energy? How would it affect how long it takes the marble to reach the bottom of the tube? What is the relationship between gravitational energy and acceleration? The activity discusses the force of gravity in a free-fall. In the experiment, what other forces are working on the marble as it rolls down the cardboard tube? What effect do these forces have on the speed at which the marble travels?
With the Modeling Gravity lesson, students get hands-on with a large sheet, a billiard ball, and marbles to investigate how gravity works in the solar system. With the Sun represented by the billiard ball and marbles representing the planets, students explore how the Sun’s mass and gravitational force attracts objects. By experimenting with rolling the marbles from the edges of the model, students will see how the sideways motion of the planets helps keep them in orbit around the Sun, rather than just being pulled to the Sun. Each object has gravitational energy based on its distance from the other objects. Questions: What happens to the gravitational energy of a planet as it orbits? What does an object’s mass have to do with gravitational force and gravitational energy? Why do moons orbit planets and not the Sun?
With the Slingshot to the Outer Planets lesson, students investigate how a gravity assist or “slingshot” maneuver can be used to help spacecraft gain enough energy to reach distant planets. Students use magnets and ball bearings to simulate a planetary flyby and explore factors related to a successful slingshot maneuver. The planets have kinetic energy as they orbit the Sun, but they also have gravitational potential energy based on their distance from the Sun. During a slingshot maneuver, some of a planet’s energy is transferred to a spacecraft as it passes by, which increases the spacecraft’s speed (relative to the Sun). Questions: How does a planet’s gravitational field affect the path of the spacecraft? What happens to the planet based on the energy lost to the spacecraft? What variables determine the amount of energy gained by a slingshot maneuver? What problem does a gravity assist maneuver help solve when thinking about interplanetary space travel?
Chemical energy refers to the energy stored in the bonds of atoms and molecules.
With the Discover the Flaming Colors of Fireworks activity, students experiment to see how the colors of fireworks are related to specific chemicals and metal salts. Due to their chemical structure, different chemicals and metal salts emit different colors of light when they burn. For example, a skewer dipped in boric acid will burn a vivid green. When elements are burned, their electrons lose energy. This energy can be seen in the form of heat or in the form of light. Question: How can the science that explains the colors observed in fireworks help scientists determine the composition of distant stars?
10. Burning Calories
In the Burning Calories—Literally! lesson, students make a calorimeter and use it to measure the energy content of various foods. Chemical energy is stored in the chemical bonds that hold carbohydrates, fats, and proteins together in food molecules and is measured in Calories. In the experiment, the homemade calorimeter measures the change in temperature in a reservoir of water as the chemical energy of a burning food transfers thermal energy to the water. Questions: How is the oxidation of food in our bodies similar to what happens when foods are burned in a calorimeter? What is the difference between Calories (capital C) and calories? Why is a homemade calorimeter less accurate than a professional one? How does energy loss occur using the homemade calorimeter?
Note: For additional lessons and activities related to chemical reactions, see the 15+ STEM Lessons and Activities to Teach Chemical Reactions collection.
Nuclear energy refers to the energy stored in the nucleus of an atom.
With the Watching Nuclear Particles: See Background Radiation Zoom Through A Cloud Chamber project, students build and experiment with a cloud chamber. A cloud chamber contains a supersaturated vapor of water or alcohol. As an atom breaks apart, the energy in the nucleus is released and sends particles zooming through the cloud chamber. As these particles collide with surrounding molecules, a trail of ions with tiny condensation droplets forms. This trail is visible in strong light. Questions: How do the tracks of alpha particles in a cloud chamber differ from those of beta particles?
Teach About Kinetic Energy
Kinetic energy is the energy an object has due to its motion. In exploring kinetic energy, students learn about motion energy, thermal energy, radiant energy, sound energy, and electrical energy.
Motion energy refers to the energy found in moving objects.
In the Engineering Car Crash Safety with Newton’s Third Law lesson, students learn about Newton’s third law of motion and investigate ways to protect a toy car from crashing. Focusing on the kinetic energy of the toy car just before it crashes, students design and build a bumper to protect the toy car during a crash. Questions: How does a car crash demonstrate Newton’s third law of motion about equal and opposite reactions? What is the relationship of an object’s mass to its kinetic energy? How is kinetic energy measured?
An egg drop challenge is a classic physics experiment in which students explore Newton’s laws of motion and potential and kinetic energy. In the Teaching Engineering Design with an Egg Drop lesson, students design a device to help protect an egg when it is dropped from various heights. Students can identify both potential and kinetic energy in the egg drop experiment, but in this lesson, the focus is on protecting the egg at the point of impact. Questions: When the egg is held up to be dropped, what kind of energy is observed? What forces act upon the egg and its kinetic energy as it falls? Why might the egg drop landing device require changes to work effectively when the egg is dropped from greater heights? What is the relationship between the height of the drop, the egg’s mass, gravity, and the speed at which the egg falls?
Note: The egg drop challenge is a good opportunity for students to explore the Engineering Design Process. The An Eggstronaut Mission video uses the design and testing of an egg drop landing device to walk students through the steps of the Engineering Design Process.
Radiant energy is the energy found in electromagnetic waves. Examples of radiant energy can be found in light from the Sun, x-rays, gamma rays, and radio waves.
In the Build a Pizza Box Solar Oven activity, students build a simple solar oven from a pizza box. The solar oven converts solar energy, radiant energy from the Sun, to thermal energy to cook food. Question: What do materials like aluminum foil and plastic wrap have to do with how the solar oven channels and uses radiant energy?
In the Build a Solar Updraft Tower activity, students build a solar updraft tower from construction paper and explore how it can be used to absorb solar energy and convert it into kinetic energy. As air in the device heats up, the propeller on top will spin. Question: What happens when the source of radiant energy is turned off or removed?
Have you always wanted a blue house? Or a yellow one? When it is time to paint a house, how should you choose which color to use? In the Can the Color of Your House Reduce Your Energy Footprint? activity, students investigate to see how the color of paint used on a building relates to how hot or cool the building stays inside. Understanding how different colors of paint absorb or reflect radiant light energy can make a difference in the energy requirements of a building for heating or cooling. Question: Can paint choices be made that help in both cold and hot temperatures? Why or why not? What other variables related to building construction can make a house more energy efficient? What color paint would keep a house coolest on a hot day? Are potential energy savings from specific paint colors enough to make it worthwhile to choose a color for environmental reasons over personal preference? (Note: For a related experiment, see this environmental engineering project.)
Thermal energy is energy from the movement of atoms and molecules in a substance. Thermal energy is often referred to as heat or heat energy.
In the Make a Thermometer to Study the Temperature lesson, students make simple liquid thermometers to explore how thermal expansion of liquids is used to make a thermometer. (Tip: A shorter activity version is also available for informal use.) Questions: How can we use a liquid inside a thermometer to tell how hot or cold it is? What happens to the liquid inside the thermometer when it cools down or heats up?
In the Curl Metals With Heat! activity, students use strips of aluminum foil and paper and a candle to investigate the thermal expansion of metals. Experimenting with strips of aluminum foil, strips of paper, and strips that have aluminum foil on one side and paper on the other, students will observe that the strips made from two different materials behave differently when held over the candle flame. Questions: Why do the strips curl with the paper on the inside and the foil facing out? If the aluminum foil side of the aluminum foil-paper strip is held to the heat, what direction will the strip appear to curl? What does the activity indicate about how different materials respond to heat?
Note: For additional lessons and activities related to thermal energy, see the 6 STEM Activities to Teach about Thermal Energy and Heat Transfer collection.
Sound energy travels in waves and is produced when objects or substances vibrate. Sound waves that reach our ears are interpreted as sound (or noise).
In the Sound and Vibrations 1: Rubber Band Guitar lesson, students make a simple guitar from a recycled box and rubber bands and explore how sound is caused by vibrations. Plucking a rubber band string makes it vibrate, which causes air molecules to vibrate, which results in a sound wave that travels to the ear and is interpreted by the brain as a sound. (For a related informal science activity, see Make a Rubber Band Guitar.) Questions: How does how hard you pluck the string correspond to the loudness of the sound?
In the Sound and Vibrations 2: Make Sprinkles Dance lesson, students learn that sound can create vibrations (rather than vibrations creating sound, as demonstrated in the rubber band guitar lesson). Using a simple setup with a plastic-covered dish (a model membrane) and candy sprinkles on top, students will create sound waves by humming and observe what happens to the sprinkles on top of the plastic. At the end of this exploration, they will be able to explain why sprinkles jump and bounce in response to the sound. (For a related informal science activity, see Make Sprinkles Vibrate with Sound.) Questions: How does how loud you hum correspond to the size of the vibrations, or how much the sprinkles “dance”?
Note: For additional lessons and activities related to the physics of sound, see the Teach About Sound with Free STEM Lessons & Activities collection.
Can you make a battery out of a stack of coins? In the Charge from Change: Make a Coin Battery activity, students make a homemade battery using construction paper, vinegar, salt, and a handful of pennies and metal washers. They’ll learn about electrodes and how electrolytes carry charged particles between metals. Questions: How many coins does it take to light up the LED?
Can your coin battery power anything other than an LED?
In the Electric Play Dough lesson (or Electric Play Dough Project 1: Make Your Play Dough Light Up & Buzz! project), students use conductive dough and insulating dough to learn about circuits. With the two types of dough, they construct simple “squishy” circuits that light up an LED and see firsthand what happens when a circuit is open or closed. For a short, informal exploration of electric play dough, see the Squishy Circuits: Light Up Your Play Doh® Creations! activity. Question: How many LEDs can you light up in your circuit?
Note: For additional lessons and activities related to teaching about electricity, see the Teach About Electricity with Free STEM Lessons & Activities collection.
Potential + Kinetic Energy Together
When exploring energy, students will quickly see that both potential and kinetic energy are often present as energy shifts from one form to another. When a stretched rubber band is released, for example, the elastic potential energy is converted to kinetic energy of motion. Similarly, a ball held up has gravitational potential energy, but when the ball is dropped, this changes to kinetic energy. The lessons and activities highlighted below are good examples of systems that demonstrate potential energy + kinetic energy, often in sequences that repeat (like a roller coaster with more than one hill).
When we talk about an object’s total kinetic energy of motion and gravitational or elastic potential energy, we refer to the energy as mechanical energy. Mechanical energy is the sum of an object’s potential and kinetic energy. The total energy in a mechanical system is its mechanical energy.
Loops make roller coasters even more fun, but they require a lot of energy to work! In the Paper Roller Coasters: Kinetic and Potential Energy lesson, students build paper roller coasters and experiment to see if they can successfully add a loop. The marble in the roller coaster has potential energy at various points, at the top of a hill, for example. The marble has kinetic energy as it rolls down a hill. As the marble moves along a roller coaster’s track, the energy will shift back and forth between potential and kinetic. Students will use this information to help them design and implement a roller coaster with a loop. Questions: What is the relationship between the starting height of the track and the energy in the marble as it travels? What happens to the marble’s energy as it goes around a loop? What force causes energy to be lost (from the system) as the marble moves from the start of the roller coaster to the finish? What can be deduced about the relationship between the starting height and the height of a loop in the roller coaster?
For another roller coaster activity, see Build a Marble Roller Coaster. This one uses foam rather than paper for a larger roller coaster building experiment.
In the Study Kinetic Energy with a Rube Goldberg Machine lesson, students learn about Rube Goldberg machines, complicated machines designed to perform a simple task. These machines often involve balls, marbles, or objects that roll from one place to another (or knock something over, like a domino) to activate the next stage in the machine. A Rube Goldberg machine uses both potential and kinetic energy, but in this lesson, students focus on kinetic energy and the role it plays in how the machine works. Questions: Why is knowing how much kinetic energy an element or part of the machine will have important in the overall design of the machine? What might happen if an element has too much kinetic energy?
25. Wall Marble Run
In the Build A Wall Marble Run activity, students design and build a wall marble run. How big can the marble run be for a marble to make it from start to finish? As they explore the role of potential and kinetic energy in the marble run, students will be able to make science-backed decisions about the design of the marble run. Questions: What kind of potential energy is demonstrated by the marble run? What might happen to a marble that was traveling very fast through a section of the marble run?
When a player dribbles a basketball, the ball has potential energy at its starting point, which is converted to kinetic energy as the ball falls to the ground. Some of the energy is lost on impact (as sound or heat or absorbed by the floor), and when the ball bounces back up, it may not return to its starting height. If a player’s hand is there to put more energy into the ball (by pushing it down again), the ball can continue to bounce up and down, and the energy will shift back and forth between potential and kinetic energy. In the Bouncing Basketballs: How Much Energy Does Dribbling Take? project, students explore the energy demonstrated by a ball that is dropped from a certain height and allowed to bounce a number of times before being caught. Questions: If no energy is added to a bouncing ball, what eventually happens to the ball? In a bouncing ball, what type of potential energy is present when the ball is held out and ready to be dropped? What impact does the distance from which the ball is dropped have on how high it will bounce or for how long? When a player uses a hand to push the ball back to the floor, what happens to the energy in the ball? (For a related exploration of the energy lost when a ball is bounced, see the Basketball Physics: Where Does a Bouncing Ball’s Energy Go? project.)
Note: For additional activities related to potential and kinetic energy, see the 12 Activities and Lessons to Teach Potential and Kinetic Energy collection.
The following word bank contains words that may be covered when teaching about energy using the lessons and activities in this resource.
- Chemical energy
- Elastic energy
- Electrical energy
- Energy transfer
- Gravitational energy
- Kinetic energy
- Law of conservation of energy
- Mechanical energy
- Motion energy
- Newton’s laws of motion
- Nuclear energy
- Potential energy
- Radiant energy
- Sound energy
- Thermal energy
Collections like this help educators find themed activities in a specific subject area or discover activities and lessons that meet a curriculum need. We hope these collections make it convenient for teachers to browse related lessons and activities. For other collections, see the Teaching Science Units and Thematic Collections lists. We encourage you to browse the complete STEM Activities for Kids and Lesson Plans areas, too. Filters are available to help you narrow your search.
Development of this resource to support educators teaching K-12 STEM curriculum topics was made possible by generous support from the Donaldson Foundation.
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