An Elementary and Middle School Approach to Energy and Matter


Traditionally, most science generalists at the elementary and middle school levels preferred to teach life science, leaving both the earth/space sciences and the physical sciences for the science specialists. This was to be expected, since most had more familiarity with biology, with many having taken biology courses in college. The result was students entering high school with a compromised and often patchy and ineffectual experience in the physical sciences.

With adherence to formal science standards, teachers now follow a developmental path that not only ensures adequate coverage but also addresses concepts at a developmentally appropriate grade band. As you are aware, Energy and Matter is profiled as one of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)* Crosscutting Concepts. Like the other building blocks of dimensions, it is presented as a sequential understanding that expands in coverage and increases in sophistication as we move upwards through the grade bands, building upon previous cached knowledge.

As a crosscutting concept, Energy and Matter is not comprised of one-time teaching moments after which students move on to the next bullet in your lesson plan. Instead, it is meant to have a recurring presence in the way students think and understand all science. This profile may best be appreciated by envisioning energy and matter in their dynamic nature. Through knowledge of the flow of energy and matter into and out of a system, students can better construct an understanding of that system and its behavior.

Energy and Matter Across Grade Bands

In primary school (grades K–2), this crosscutting concept is distilled down into the basic composition of objects; parts that make up a whole. Strictly limited to structure and properties of matter (no coverage of energy at this grade band), it doesn’t delve into the specific nature of the particles—only that there are distinct building blocks that can be assembled into larger objects or disassembled back into smaller ones. This assembly can then be related to the final shape of the object.

In elementary school (grades 3–5), students are introduced to energy and how it may be transferred in various ways. Their understanding of matter also addresses its dynamic nature as they explore how it flows and cycles within a system. By limiting behaviors to systems, students can then appreciate how the weight (mass is not yet addressed) of substances does not change during processes, as profiled in the conservation of matter.

By the time students are in middle school (grades 6-8), they are presented with the concept of atoms and their role in the conservation of matter. With increased student sophistication, less tangible concepts associated with energy are now addressed. The transformation of energy and an introduction to energy fields supplement the basic understanding of energy transfer. That transfer of energy is also expanded so that it can be applied to natural systems and appreciated as the “engine” driving observable changes such as the cycling of matter.

As you can see, the crosscutting concept of Energy and Matter is much more than a cache of standalone concepts. As profiled by NGSS, the concept is fundamental to all science disciplines. It drives change that includes flows and cycles in natural systems. This understanding is also essential to human-designed systems, since knowledge of energy and matter inputs, outputs, transfers, and transformations is critical to engineering.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


Michael DiSpezio hosted a free webinar, An Elementary and Middle School Approach to Energy and Matter, on Thursday, May 17, 2018 at 7 p.m. Eastern Time. Watch the recording here.

*Next Generation Science Standards and logo are registered trademarks of Achieve. Neither Achieve nor the lead states and partners that developed the Next Generation Science Standards was involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this product.

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