Questions & Answers

Note: this section is under construction. The list of questions are shown, but there are no links to the pages showing the answers which are currently being completed.

Sorting out the science

Basic ideas of thermodynamics which must underpin teaching approaches if they are to make any kind of sense.

  • What is energy?
  • Where did the idea of energy come from?
  • What are the laws of thermodynamics?
  • Why is energy conserved?
  • What is the First Law of Thermodynamics?
  • What is entropy?
  • What is the Second Law of Thermodynamics?
  • If everything tends to sameness, how can anything be created?
  • Does the Second Law apply to living things?

A hard topic made harder

Energy is a difficult area of the curriculum to teach, and not made easier by errors and inconsistencies in published resources and assessments.

  • What is the relationship between the everyday meaning of energy and its scientific meaning?
  • How is the term ‘energy’ used in popular science and by scientists?
  • Is the way that energy is defined the same across all of the sciences?
  • Is energy what makes things happen?
  • Is energy what makes us feel energetic?
  • How many forms of energy are there?
  • During a change, is energy transformed or transferred?
  • Is energy stored in food and in fuels?

Students’ and their ideas

Many of the concepts in this topic relate to familiar experiences and everyday language, which can impede a scientific understanding.

  • What do students understand as the difference between heat and temperature?
  • What ideas do students have about temperature measurement?
  • How do students explain why metal feels colder than wood?
  • What kinds of objects and situations do students associate with the term ‘energy’?
  • What do students understand about the relationships between movement, force and energy?
  • Do students see energy as conserved?

A plethora of advice

There is no shortage of advice about how to talk and how not to talk about energy in the science classroom – good, bad and indifferent.

  • Is introducing students to a ‘circus of energy changes’, a helpful starting point for them to practice using ‘energy descriptions’?
  • Is using money as an analogy a good way of clarifying what energy is?
  • What should I say causes changes to happen? Energy? Force? Entropy? Differences?
  • Should I avoid talking about ‘forms of energy’, such as kinetic energy?
  • Is it better to talk about where energy is and how it moves from one place to another?
  • Should I avoid using the word ‘heat’? Or use it just as a verb, but never as a noun?
  • Is it better to think of energy as ‘just a value’ or as something ‘substance-like’.
  • Should I avoid using ‘energy’ to explain what happens in changes, and just use it as an ‘accounting device’.

Some ways forward

Suggestions for how to introduce the energy concept, how to develop the ideas and how this lays the foundation for later work.

  • How is talking about ‘energy stores’ and ‘energy transfers’ a helpful approach?
  • Where is a good starting point for introducing these ideas?
  • What should be taught first – conservation or dissipation?
  • What are good terms for describing the different kinds of energy store?
  • What are good terms for describing the different ways that energy can be transferred?
  • What are ‘steady states’?
  • How does this relate to quantitative work on energy?
  • How important is it to use a ‘special language’ when talking about energy?

The new national curriculum

The 2014 curriculum for England introduces some new ideas about energy, which imply that teachers should adapt their approaches to the topic.

  • Is the new curriculum better or just different from previous versions? What are the opportunities and where are the pitfalls?
  • Why is ‘energy values of different foods’ included under ‘Physics’ and not ‘Biology’? Is this a good place to start?
  • Why has the term ‘internal energy’ been introduced? What exactly does it mean?
  • What are the implications of ‘comparing the starting with the final conditions of a system’?
  • Why have references to dissipation been dropped? Does this make the energy concept easier for students to understand?
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