energy in depth—everyday language surrounding energy contains many shortcuts that lead to misunderstandings. For this reason, the concept is not developed at all in K-2 and only very generally in grades 3-5. Instead, the elementary grades focus on recognition of conservation of matter and of the flow of matter into, out of, and within systems under study. The role of energy transfers in conjunction with these flows is not introduced until the middle grades and only fully developed by high school.

Clearly, incorrect beliefs—such as the perception that food or fuel is a form of energy—would lead to elementary grade students’ misunderstanding of the nature of energy. Hence, although the necessity for food or fuel can be discussed, the language of energy needs to be used with care so as not to further establish such misconceptions. By middle school, a more precise idea of energy—for example, the understanding that food or fuel undergoes a chemical reaction with oxygen that releases stored energy—can emerge. The common misconceptions can be addressed with targeted instructional interventions (including student-led investigations), and appropriate terminology can be used in discussing energy across the disciplines.

Matter transfers are less fraught in this respect, but the idea of atoms is not introduced with any specificity until middle school. Thus, at the level of grades 3-5, matter flows and cycles can be tracked only in terms of the weight of the substances before and after a process occurs, such as sugar dissolving in water. Mass/weight distinctions and the idea of atoms and their conservation (except in nuclear processes) are taught in grades 6-8, with nuclear substructure and the related conservation laws for nuclear processes introduced in grades 9-12.

Structure and Function

As expressed by the National Research Council in 1996 and reiterated by the College Board in 2009, “Form and function are complementary aspects of objects, organisms, and systems in the natural and designed world…. Understanding of form and function applies to different levels of organization. Function can be explained in terms of form and form can be explained in terms of function” [2, 3].

The functioning of natural and built systems alike depends on the shapes and relationships of certain key parts as well as on the properties of the materials from which they are made. A sense of scale is necessary in order to know what properties and what aspects of shape or material are relevant at a particular magnitude or in investigating particular phenomena—that is, the selection of an appropriate scale depends on the question being asked. For example, the substructures of molecules

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement