blank blank
blank blank blank
Tesla Tesla for Teachers blank
Home Life and Legacy Inside the Lab Tesla for Teachers Discussions Resources
blank blank blank blank
blank — Potential Energy: How Does It Work? —
paper top
paper left

Grades 4 through 6

This lesson plan will take approximately 50 minutes.

Energy is the capacity for doing work. Potential energy is the kind of energy that is at rest. When that energy goes into motion, it is called kinetic energy.

A big rock sitting on the top of a cliff has lots of potential energy. If we push it off the cliff, then its energy becomes kinetic-energy in motion! If the falling rock lands on one side of a seesaw, this moving energy will lift the other side of the seesaw into the air.

A lake sitting behind a dam also is full of potential energy. If the water is allowed to flow, its potential energy becomes kinetic energy. If some of the water flows through a pipe to a turbine, its kinetic energy will spin the blades of the turbine.

Students will:

  1. Discuss the difference between energy in motion and at rest.
  2. Draw a picture of water moving a turbine.
  3. Discuss other ways that a turbine might be made to move.
  4. Discuss the idea of energy's capacity for doing work.

This lesson addresses the following National Science Education Standards, found at

  • Physical Science, Transfer of Energy: Energy is a property of many substances and is associated with heat, light, electricity, mechanical motion, sound, nuclei, and the nature of a chemical. Energy is transferred in many ways.
  • Science and Technology: Scientific inquiry and technological design have similarities and differences. Scientists propose explanations for questions about the natural world, and engineers propose solutions relating to human problems, needs, and aspirations. Technological solutions are temporary; technologies exist within nature and so they cannot contravene physical or biological principles; technological solutions have side effects; and technologies cost, carry risks, and provide benefits.


For constructing one turbine, a student or group of students will need the following materials:

  • 2 popsicle sticks
  • 1 pencil
  • epoxy

- Constructing the Turbine -
View the illustrated instructions for a visual overview of this project.

To make the turbine blades, cut the 2 popsicle sticks in half. Epoxy the blades to the middle of the pencil so that they are 90 degrees apart (at the 3 o'clock, 6 o'clock, 9 o'clock, and 12 o'clock positions).

- Operating the Turbine -
Test your turbine at a sink. Turn the faucet to start a trickle of water. Hold the turbine horizontally and loosely under the falling water. Your turbine should spin in your fingers.

- Explore the World Outside -
Ask students to name other turbines they have seen. (water wheels, pinwheels, windmills, etc.)

- Explore the Film & Web Site -
Present related Niagara clips from the film Tesla: Master of Lightning to the class. The following are some suggestions:

04:30 - 11:41
My Early Years: A look at how Tesla's early life prepared him for Niagara

23:21 - 27:40
Niagara: An overview of the first hydroelectric plant

After viewing clips from the film, direct students through the interactive tour of Tesla's Niagara power system on this site. Discuss the kinetic energy inherent in the Niagara River's flowing water. Ask students to locate the turbine within the Niagara power plant tour. Ask students: What happens to the kinetic energy when the water turns the turbine? (It becomes a specific kind of kinetic energy called mechanical energy.)

What Do You Think?
Ask students to list 5 examples of potential energy and tell how each one can become kinetic energy.

The teacher should consider the following when assessing students:

  • Participation in class discussions.
  • How well the student can draw a water turbine.
  • How well the students can build a model of a turbine.
  • Do the students find other ways to make the model turbine work?

Guide students through a discussion of another way of spinning a turbine. Coal has potential energy. Coal can be burned to change water into steam. If the moving steam is channeled to push on the blades of a turbine, the turbine will spin. What is happening to the energy? First, the potential energy in the coal is released when the coal is heated. This kinetic energy is heat energy. The heat energy changes the liquid water into steam. When the steam pushes on the blades of the turbine, the heat energy becomes mechanical energy.

Next Lesson Plan | Tesla for Teachers Index
Lesson plan developed by Jim and Judy Hardesty
paper right
paper top
blank stripes Screensaver Stripes Production Overview Boutique Stripes blank
Promotional support provided by: