Energy Cubes – Teaching the Energy Transfer Model

I’m sure I’m not the first one to come up with the idea – but this past summer I made Energy Cubes!

Six energy cubes from 2016-2017.

They’re six-sided quantized “blocks” of energy. On each face, I’ve put a different flavor of energy – kinetic, gravitational potential, elastic potential, chemical, nuclear and dissipated. These are the most common types of energy my ninth grade Conceptual Physics class uses – nuclear isn’t used, but it always comes up and I had an extra side – and it’s a nice way to make an abstract concept like energy feel more tangible.

We’ve found a few ways to use them. They can be used to create three-dimensional LOL Charts. Here are two instants in the scenario “A car is driving downhill and speeding up.”

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They can represent where in a system energy is located…

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And they’re a great miniature version of Energy Transfer Theatre, for the kids to do at their desks after a day of doing it with their bodies.

I don’t necessarily think that EVERY kid needs them, but for those kids right at the cusp of the concrete/abstract divide, this might be another prop to scaffold energy in a way that’s useful. I’d also like to see if middle school teachers would use them, so we can move a 9th grader’s understanding of energy beyond “energy can neither be created nor destroyed…” *snore*

What I like about these cubes:

  • They’re quantized. They are something that can be counted – something that we want them to view energy ask as we ask them to move from a conceptual understanding to a quantitative one.
  • They’re tangible. You can hold them, and throw them, and lose them. You HAVE to put them all SOMEWHERE – so you don’t have a choice of not using all of your energy, if you’re working with a closed system.

Some things I’d like to fix about these cubes:

  • I’d like to make ten-sided blocks – kinetic, gravitational, elastic, electric, chemical, nuclear, thermal, electromagnetic, acoustic, and – most importantly – a MYSTERY FLAVOR side! The “none of the above” option is an incredibly important one, as you can always find new flavors of energy.
  • Another reason to like ten-sided shapes… these die look a lot like Joules jewels of energy! And we all know what physics needs is more puns.
  • When making it ten-sided, I’d like to get rid of dissipated energy. I’ve had some very smart teachers convince me that since dissipation is an entropic action of energy – it’s gonna spread out, no matter what – it doesn’t make sense to call any specific type of energy dissipated, or dissipative. All energy is dissipative! It usually dissipates as heat, light, and sound, but those distinctions are somewhat arbitrary anyway (kinetic, acoustic, and thermal are the same type of energy, with varying degrees of order). Overall, “dissipated energy” is a useful catch-all bucket, but we’re probably covering up some misconceptions that are worth looking into more deeply.

I feel like I’ve seen some growth with regards to students’ understanding of energy concepts, compared to the last two years. I’ll be posting my raw data from my Energy Concept Inventory pre- and post-test quizzes later. In the meantime – any thoughts? Good, bad, unnecessary?

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