Three Lessons About Energy

I designed these three little lessons a long time ago to support a third-grade science curriculum (the particular textbook is now lost to us--or in other words I can't remember the name of it), but they could be used with any elementary students who are studying energy in science class.


Be a Water Molecule--Three States of Matter  |  Why Do We Need Electricity?  |  Ring That Doorbell!



Be a Water Molecule--Three States of Matter

This is basically a narrative pantomime activity in which students act the roles of water molecules as they move from a liquid to a solid state, back to a liquid and then to a gaseous state.  However,  I do not tell the students at the beginning that they are water molecules, or that we are doing a lesson about states of matter.  I do tell them the game will have something to do with science, but I save the specifics for after the activity.


Liquid State

I define a specific playing space on the floor, roughly circular, by arranging desks or chairs, or using an area rug.  The space must be considerably bigger than the group can fill when closely spaced.  Then I ask all of the students to come into the middle of the space, and get as close together as they can.


I tell the students to move around freely amongst one another, but to stay in the middle of the space.  Depending on the group, I may have to be proactive in keeping them from pushing and shoving.   I comment on the fluidity of the group, and the way that it seems to stay in the middle of the room and maintain its size, but change its shape continuously.


Solid State

After they are moving comfortably, I tell them that I am going to begin to take away energy from the group.  As their energy decreases, they will begin to feel tired, and not move as much or as fast.

As the children continue to slow down, I "remove" even more energy.  Finally I tell them to grab hold of one another and stop moving altogether.  The group congeals into a solid mass, and I move around it, prodding it gently and commenting on how solid it is, and on the way it holds its shape.


Gaseous State

After the children are finished absorbing this part, I tell them I will now begin adding energy.  They let go of each other and begin to move around more freely again.  I comment on the fact that the group is once more changing its shape.

Then I tell them I am adding even more energy.  As they start moving faster, I tell them that there is now so much energy that they can't stay in the center.  I tell them they are free to move anywhere in the defined space, and that if they "bump into" anything (I stress that they should not really crash) they will bounce off in a new direction.


Presently the group is moving pretty freely all over the defined space.  I comment on the fact that the group has expanded to fill all of the available space.  I point out that once again its shape is constant, but now it is the "container" that defines the shape.  I make a small change in the shape of the container and comment on the way that changes the shape of the group.



After a minute or two of "high energy," I bring the energy back to the starting point, and we end the activity.  We sit in a circle for a discussion.  I ask the group if they can think of anything in their Science classes that is sort of like what we've just done.  With very little prodding from me, they realize they have been enacting changing states of matter.  This discovery generally delights them, and leads to a lively discussion of the ways the two processes--ours in the classroom and the physics process--are similar and different.  Then we repeat the activity, very briefly.



Why Do We Need Electricity?

This is a variation of "No, You Can't Take Me!" It teaches critical thinking skills while hammering home the idea of just how much we rely on electricity in modern life.


Each student chooses (but keeps secret) a particular electrical device.  It could be anything from an electric hair dryer or toaster to an electric cable car or a photocopier.


Each student arranges her or his body to resemble the chosen device.


I survey the room and say, "My, look at all this junk.  I don't need all this junk.  I think I'll get rid of some of it."  I then choose a particular student and say, "I think I'll take this thing away."


The student (we've discussed the rules of the game ahead of time) says, "No, you can't take me!" I reply, "Why not?"  The student says, "Because without me. . ."  (Here the student must come up with something bad that would happen if that particular device were not there.  For example, a toaster might say, "Because without me you'd have to eat squishy soggy bread all the time."  A photocopier might say, "Without me you'd get writer's cramp copying all those papers by hand."  The idea here is that the students must come up with several real purposes for their objects.  I often don't let them off the hook with only one answer.  "Well, I like soggy squishy bread.  I'm still taking you."


I repeat the process with each student.



Ring that Doorbell!

This is a fun little game in which students think a bit about how electricity works.  It is based on a pretty simplistic concept of the physics involved, but you ought to be able to adjust it if it doesn't square with the way you teach the concepts.



I begin this exercise with a short discussion about electricity and how it travels through wires.  Then we choose one student to be the "Doorbell."  (We audition the best "ringer.")  Another student is chosen to be the "Avon Lady" (brush salesman, or anyone who could be expected to ring the doorbell, would work just as well) and another to be the "button."  Everyone else is part of the "wire."


The "Doorbell" positions herself at one end of the room, and the "Button" positions himself at the other, near our  imaginary door.  The rest of the class joins hands and forms a "wire" leading from the "Button" to the "Doorbell."


Ringing the Bell

The "Avon Lady" walks up to the "door" and pushes the "Button."  (She presses on his head.)


The "Button" squeezes the hand of the next child in the circuit, who in turn squeezes the next, etc., until at last someone squeezes the hand of the "Doorbell," who calls out, "Ding Dong!"


We do this several times, in different ways.  We try to see how fast we can make it work, and we discuss the fact that real electricity would go much faster than we can, but that it does take time, even if it doesn't seem like it.  We try it with our eyes closed, and we experiment to see what will happen if the wire is broken.



Afterwards, we discuss how this is and is not like real electricity.  (The textbook I was using when I wrote this lesson didn't get into positive and negative, and this game ignores the fact that we really should have a second wire going back to the button and probably a power source as well.  But with a group sophisticated enough to need these, you could easily add them, or perhaps even better, don't add them and see if their absence comes up in the discussion.)