Energy in Systems: Where Does It Go?

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SWBAT to identify the conversion of energy in a system.

Big Idea

Building off of previous lessons, students apply their knowledge of energy transformations to systems thinking.

Getting Started

This is the third lesson on energy transformations in this unit. In this series of activities, students begin with a energy transfer card sort to review what they have learned so far. Then they move on to thinking about more complex scenarios of energy transfers and create systems maps to illustrate the forms of energy and the transformations that occur during these complex interactions.

The setup and materials for this lesson are very simple. I recommend that you print the Energy Transformations Cards onto cardstock and laminate them for future use. You will need one set of cards for each group of students. The file is an open Word document so feel free to add additional energy transformations to expand the deck of cards if you wish. Additionally, the scenarios for energy transfers and systems practice can also be modified and expanded.


  • Energy transfer cards
  • Student handouts


15 minutes

Start this lesson with a review of energy transfers. Give each group of students a sense of energy transfer cards. These cards include a device, which we will later identify as. System, and an accompanying card with energy transfers. Students must first sort the various devices (systems) and match them with the appropriate series of energy transfers.

As students are working rotate around to each table and check on their work. If ask each group to notify you when they believe they are finished. Check the list that they have created and identify the systems that need to be corrected.

Once all the groups have finished the activity, go over the correct answers with the class.


20 minutes

In this part of the lesson you begin by discussing how each of the devices in the card sort activity are systems.

Ask your students, what is a system. Ellicit responses from a few students and write their ideas down on the board. From these ideas I then generate an image as I explained to them how to think about systems. I assume that at least a few of your students will suggest that a system is made up of parts that interact with one another to do something. This seems to be the consistent idea I hear from students and year-after-year.

As I begin my explanation of how I think about systems, I write the word systems on the board. Underneath this I write parts, interact, transfer energy and share with students usually building off of their ideas, that the system is indeed made of parts that interact with one another and exchange energy. I then circle all of these terms. I explained to them that every system has a boundary, the point where the system begins and ends.

I then use them as an example. I tell them that their cells are a system made up of organelles working together to perform the function of the cell. The boundary of the cells are the cell membrane. I continue this storyline saying that their cells are part of organs that organs are systems and similarly their body systems work together to create the system of a human being,  themselves. Our classroom is a system, with all of us interacting together to learn. The boundary of that system is the walls of our classroom and the door through which they enter and exit. The school is a system. The school is made up of multiple classrooms and several adults and children all interacting together. The boundary of the school are the walls of the building.

I then go back to the diagram on the board and I explain to them that all systems are found in an environment. I write the word environment outside of the circle. I then go back to the previous explanations to say that the environment in which your cells are found are your organs. Your organs are found in the environment of your organ systems. Your organ systems are found in the environment of your body. Our classroom is found in the environment of our school. Our school is found in the environment of the local community. And so on and so on. 

Introduce the activity by passing out Energy Transformations and previewing the handout starting with students the image on the front. If you like you could re-create this system using a paper wad and rubber band. This always captures their attention. (Be sure to emphasize that this is a teacher demonstration, and isn't to be recreated by them in the lunchroom or anywhere else for that matter!)

Review the four scenarios given and instruct them to choose one and create an energy transfer diagram for that scenario.

Instruct them to create the diagrams the same way as the one shown, labeling each transformation and the type of energy. Give students time to work. As they're working, move around the room and coach students as needed.


10 minutes

Time permitting, use the remainder of class to have students turn and share their ideas with their table groups. Alternatively, you may have students choose to present their systems scenarios to the class.To to assess each system diagram make sure that they included the forms of energy, transformations, arrows, annotations, number of energy units transferred. Refer to the diagram provided as an exemplar.

In the video below one of my students reflects on how challenging this activity is. She is from France and has only been studying in the United States for little over a year. I have taught her both seventh and eighth grade science so I can attest to how far she has come with her English acquisition skills.



20 minutes

As an extension to this assignment, for homework you may assign the handout on energy conversions. This will give students additional practice.