Mystery Box Modeling: Energy Transformations

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Students will be able to identify different forms of energy and recognize that energy is conserved when it is transferred.

Big Idea

Students create models of energy transformations using pop its, whistling tubes, electromagnets, and more!

This Unit

This unit is designed to answer the Essential Question, "How is energy transferred through various systems in the natural world?" 

Students explore energy transfer and transformation. They utilize engineering design principles to design solutions based on knowledge of kinetic and potential energy as well as heat transfer. Moreover, students learn reading and writing tools and strategies to gain scientific literacy.

Introduction and Connection to the NGSS and Common Core

As an introductory lesson to this unit, students begin to develop their understanding of various forms of energy, energy transfer, and conservation of energy by creating models in a "Mystery Box".  Students analyze text to find information about various forms of energy and then use the items in the box to model (SP2) the forms of energy that they read about.  These models can represent inputs, processes, and outputs that show how energy flows through systems (Cross Cutting Concept Systems and System Models).

This lesson connects to the following NGSS and Common Core Standards:

MS-PS3-2  Develop a model to describe that when the arrangement of objects interacting at a distance changes, different amounts of potential energy are stored in the system.

MS-PS3- 5  Construct, use, and present arguments to support the claim that when the kinetic energy of an object changes, energy is transferred to or from the object.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.1  Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts.

A list of my "Mystery Box" objects is included in the resources.

The box is not limited to these objects!  And, if you don't have some of these materials, add different materials that could demonstrate various types of energy!

Connecting to the Essential Question: What are you going to learn today?

5 minutes

Provide students with the Energy Unit Plan which includes the Essential Question as well as the learning targets for the unit.  The Essential Question I use is from the "Storyline" provided by the NGSS:  "How does energy transfer through various systems in the natural world?"

As this is the introductory lesson to the Energy Unit, it is crucial to take time to go through the unit plan to make sure that students are clear on the focus and expectations of the unit.  First, explain that each lesson during this unit is designed to help the students answer the question, "How does energy transfer through various systems in the natural world?".  

Say, "There sure is a lot of vocabulary in that question!  Let's break down the question to make sure we understand what it is asking of us.  The first key word I notice is the word energy.  What does that word mean to you?".  Allow students to share their ideas of what energy means.  Often students share ideas about different types of energy like "fire", "heat", "movement", "stored energy", etc.

"The next word is transfer.  What does transfer mean?  I don't necessarily need a science definition.  In your everyday life, what does the word transfer mean?"  Students often share something like "moving from one place to another".

"Ok, so we are talking about energy moving from one place to another.  What does various mean?"  Students often say something like, "many" or "different types".

"I see the word system.  What does the word system mean to you?"  This is usually a tougher one for students.  Eventually they may offer something like, "something with many things working together".

"So far I know that I am supposed to be learning about energy moving from one place to another in many different kinds of systems.  What does this mean by the natural world?"  Students may say something like, "the real world" or "in our own lives".

"Now I understand!  We are supposed to be learning how energy moves from place to place in systems in the real world!  Specifically, today we are going to focus on Skill 6: I can develop models that show different forms of energy transfer that occur in the world and how they can transform from one form of energy to another.  (ex.  Chemical to sound, radiant to thermal, etc).  Throughout the lesson today, really try to connect with this skill.  Let's make sure we know what we are looking to connect to.  Take a minute to look at Skill 6 and do the following:  1.  underline the important science vocabulary in that skill.  2.  Circle the key verbs of the skill.  In other words, the part of the skill that says what you have to be able to do with the vocabulary.  Then, next to the skill on your paper, rank yourself on a scale of 1 to 4 on your level of mastery on that skill right now."

After completing this skill analysis, have students share the words that they underlined that were important and the key verb(s) that they identified.  Let students know that if at any time during the lesson they connect to any of the vocabulary or the skill itself, they should share the connection with you or another students.

Mini Lesson: Talking to the Text and Forms of Energy

25 minutes

Provide students with the Energy Transformations Text.  Explain to students that as a reader, it is important to interact with the text that you are reading.  Successful readers don't just read the words, they are constantly connecting to the concepts in the text and are problem solving along the way.  In order to show their thought process while reading the text, ask the students to"talk to the text" as they read.  The should mark up by paper by writing notes in the margin, underlining key words, and circling words they do not understand.  Let them know that they may use a highlighter, but only if they are going to use it sparingly (I often joke with students that when they get a highlighter in their hand, they might as well highlight the things that are not important because they usually just end up highlighting the entire paper.)  

I model what this looks like for the first paragraph of the text and then provide the students time to talk to the rest of the text on their own.


Once students are finished talking to the text, ask students to share with the whole group some of their thought processes.  You might ask students to share:

  • Important vocabulary they found.
  • Text to self connections.
  • Real world examples.
  • Connections to the essential question or to Skill 6 from the Unit Plan.
  • Concepts or vocabulary they did not understand.

Explain to the students that they now have identified some various forms of energy and have read about some examples of how energy can transform from one type to another.  Explain that they also have read about how energy is conserved as it is transferred.  

Modeling Energy Transformations: Mystery Box

30 minutes

After providing the students with the Light Bulb Sheet, let them know that in today's lesson, they will be using the "Mystery Box" to create models of the various forms of energy and some energy transformations.  Explain to them that while the box may be filled with what seems to be random materials, they all can be used to model energy transformations.  Tell students that they are to use the materials in the box to identify as many forms of energy and energy transformations that they can.  Once they model this, they are to add their model to their Light Bulb Sheet.  

I then model this process for them.  I place an incandescent light bulb in a beaker of water and place it in the microwave for 15 seconds where students can see the microwave.  This causes the light bulb that is floating in the water to light up!  (Safety Note:  It is really important not to place the light bulb in the microwave for much longer than 15 seconds.  You may also want to tell students not to do this at home!)


I then explain that this is a model of electrical energy in the microwave transforming into radiant energy (the microwaves/light bulb lighting), thermal energy (the water is hot), and sound energy (the beeps of the microwave).  On the Elmo, I add this to a blank light bulb and have the students add it to theirs as well.  I draw a light ray off the light bulb and write "Light bulb in Microwave" and draw a small picture of what occurred.  I then write electrical energy with an arrow to radiant, thermal, and sound.  

Then, I ask the students to consider how energy in the sun is used to create sugar in plants during photosynthesis.  I add this to a new light ray and draw a plant with the sun shining on it.  I ask students what transformations might be occurring.  Students should identify that nuclear energy in the sun is transformed into radiant and thermal energy.  Then, the radiant energy is converted into chemical energy in the plant.  

Once students have added these two examples ask them to use the box to come up with as many models of energy transformations as they can.  Emphasize that each model must be added to the light bulb and that they should try to model as many different forms of energy that they can. 

Misconception Alert:  The only form of energy they won't be able to model is nuclear energy. However, I do not tell them this.  It is important to see if they realize it.  Many middle school students, for example, initially think that lighting a match is nuclear energy.  Walk around and check for understanding in this area as students begin adding to their light bulb. 

Mystery Box Modeling: Student Examples

Some models and an example completed student lightbulb students create are included here!

Completed Student Lightbulb:

Lighting a Match:  Chemical to Thermal and Radiant

Magnets:  Magnetic to Mechanical

Whistling Tubes:  Mechanical to Sound

Spoon and a Ping Pong Ball:  Elastic Potential to Mechanical 

Electromagnet:  Electrical to Magnetic

Pop Its:  Chemical to Sound and Thermal


5 minutes

To close, ask the students to use their hands to model motion energy transforming into sound energy.  (Students may begin snapping, clapping, etc.).  Then, ask students to look at the mastery score that they gave themselves at the beginning of the lesson and re-assess themselves now that the lesson has concluded.  Have students change the number if they felt appropriate.