12 Activities and Lessons to Teach Potential and Kinetic Energy
Use these free lesson plans and hands-on activities to explore potential and kinetic energy with students!
What happens when you stretch a rubber band and let it go? Why? Explaining how energy is stored and transferred and how that relates to the movement and momentum of objects in motion involves understanding potential and kinetic energy. This is an area of science where getting hands-on with the storage, transfer, and release of energy really helps students connect with what is happening. When students stretch something, and it flies into the distance, or roll a marble down a paper roller coaster and watch to see if it can travel up the incline of a loop, they see the science in action and can investigate, hands-on, how changing different variables affects the speed, distance traveled, or momentum of an object.
These activities and NGSS-aligned lesson plans help educators create hands-on learning opportunities to teach about potential and kinetic energy in the classroom, as part of remote learning, or for independent or family exploration at home.
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 inspire confidence in teachers even in areas that may be new to them, and include supplemental resources like worksheets, videos, discussion questions, and assessment materials.
Lesson Plans and Activities to Teach About Potential and Kinetic Energy
With the Paper Roller Coasters: Kinetic and Potential Energy lesson (or activity), students build their own model paper roller coasters and explore how conservation of energy applies in terms of gravitational potential energy, kinetic energy, and friction. What determines if a marble can make it from the start of the roller coaster to the end? Can it do a loop?
In the Build a Popsicle Stick Catapult activity, students use popsicle sticks and craft materials to build a small catapult and then explore the role of potential and kinetic energy in launching a cotton or paper ball. Can they use what they learn about energy to successfully launch at a target or over a "castle" wall?
With the Popsicle Stick Chain Reaction activity, students make an interlocked chain of tongue depressor sticks. Each stick they place in the chain adds energy. It takes patience to set up the chain, but the final chain reaction is exciting!
With the Design a Paper Airplane Launcher lesson, students learn about potential and kinetic energy as they use the engineering design process to build a paper airplane launcher. (An activity is also available for informal use.)
In the Build A Wall Marble Run activity, students learn about potential and kinetic energy while building a wall marble run out of recycled materials and empty toilet paper or cardboard tubes. Understanding how energy works is key to designing a successful marble run!
With the Build a Rubber Band-Powered Car activity, students design and build a car with wheels made from compact discs (CDs) and an axle that uses a rubber band to store and release energy. They learn about potential and kinetic energy as they wind up the axle and test to see how far the car goes.
In the Build a Marble Roller Coaster activity, students use foam tubing to build a different kind of roller coaster than the paper one. It is easy to design loops with the tubing, but understanding energy has a lot to do with whether a marble can make it from start to finish.
With the Build a Mini Trebuchet activity, students use popsicle sticks, rubber bands, and other common materials to build a small trebuchet. In the Middle Ages, a trebuchet was a larger siege machine than a catapult. How does energy get stored and released when a trebuchet launches?
With the Ping Pong Catapult lesson, students experiment with the Ping Pong Catapult to explore potential and kinetic energy by launching ping pong balls. (There are multiple student projects that use the Ping Pong Catapult and might also be useful in your classroom exploration.)
With the Make a Cotton Ball Launcher activity, students use recycled toilet paper or cardboard tubes to build a fun launch device.
With the Swinging Pendulum lesson, students learn how energy is converted from potential to kinetic and back again by studying the movement of a pendulum. What does the height of the swing have to do with the energy?
Note: For additional activities related to teaching about types of energy and the law of conservation of energy, see the 26 Experiments To Teach About Types of Energy collection.
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