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Einstein's Big Idea

Classroom Activities

Energy's Invisible World


Activity Summary
Students explore the meaning of E in E = mc2 by investigating the nature of fields and forces at different stations in the classroom.

Learning Objectives
Students will be able to:

  • explain what the E in E = mc2 represents.

  • name different kinds of energy.

  • show examples of how one kind of energy can be converted into another kind of energy.

  • describe how a field can exert a force and cause an object to move.

Materials for each station

(electric field)

  • several plastic spoons
  • 10 cm x 10 cm piece of wool or rabbit fur
  • pieces of plastic foam cup, crumbled into bits
  • pieces of paper, about 0.5 cm by 1 cm each

Station 2
(magnetic field)

  • bar or horseshoe magnet
  • small shallow cardboard box
  • piece of white paper (cut to fit box)
  • iron filings in small jar or beaker

Station 3

  • 40 cm of well-insulated copper wire
  • 6V lantern battery
  • 2 large nails
  • small paper clips

Station 4
(mechanical to heat energy)

  • 8 oz bottle of glycerin
  • two 8 or 10 oz plastic foam cups
  • 2 metal spoons
  • 2 alcohol thermometers
  • clear tape
  • magnifying glass
  • paper towels

Station 5
(electrical to heat energy)

  • 2 pieces of insulated wire, each 20 cm long
  • one 1.5V battery
  • small light-bulb socket and 4W bulb

Station 6
(potential to kinetic to mechanical energy)

  • 2 metal pendulum bobs
  • 60 cm string, cut in half
  • ring stand, ruler, or meter stick

Station 7
(chemical to heat energy)

  • 2 wood splints of same weight
  • two 500 ml beakers
  • pan or triple-beam balance
  • long wooden matches and goggles (for teacher only)
Materials for each team
  • copy of the "Energy's Invisible World" student handout (PDF or HTML)
  • copy of the "Station 1-3 Instructions" student handout (PDF or HTML)
  • copy of the "Station 4-7 Instructions" student handout (PDF or HTML)

E = mc2 sprang from the work of men and women dedicated to revealing the secrets of nature. One of the scientists integral to the equation's E was a young bookbinder named Michael Faraday. A self-taught scientist, Faraday helped reshape the idea of energy. In the early 19th century, scientists saw nature in terms of individual powers and forces, like wind or lightning. Scientists were puzzled when they placed a compass next to a charged wire and its needle was deflected at right angles. Faraday visualized an answer no one could believe—that the compass was being affected by invisible lines of force flowing around the wire. Through a groundbreaking experiment involving electricity and a magnet, Faraday demonstrated the existence of these lines of force. His work served as the basis for the electric engine. It was Faraday's ability to see a problem in a new way that led to this breakthrough.

In this activity, students explore different aspects of energy, energy fields, the forces that fields exert on other objects, and how energy is transferred from one form to another. Students move through a series of stations where they do mini-activities and make observations.

Energy can be a difficult concept to define for younger students. Usually defined as the ability to do work, the definition can be made clearer when students examine what energy does in a physical sense. Work is done when an object has a force exerted on it and the object moves a distance. So, in the simplest possible terms, energy is expended when work is done, and energy is often transferred and appears in a different form (i.e., electric potential heats up a light bulb filament; heating the filament produces light and heat energy).

A field is region of space characterized by the existence of a force. The easiest field for students to understand is Earth's gravitational field, which is responsible for objects falling. When a ball is dropped, the field exerts a force that accelerates the ball and moves it toward Earth in the same way that the north pole of a magnet exerts a force on the south pole of another magnet. The work that the field does is converted to energy of motion of the ball, and then to heat when the ball hits the ground. At several stations in this activity, students will examine what fields can do in terms of exerting forces and doing work. Conservation of energy is also explored.

Key Terms

conservation of energy: A law stating that the total amount of energy in a closed system stays constant.

electric field: A region of space characterized by the presence of a force generated by an electric charge.

electromagnet: A magnet created when an electric current flows through a coil of wire; magnetism does not occur when the current is off.

field: A region of space characterized by the existence of a force.

kinetic energy: The energy due to the motion of an object.

magnetic field: A region of space characterized by the presence of a force generated by a magnet. A magnetic field is also produced by a flowing electric current.

potential energy: The energy an object has due to its position or condition rather than its motion.

work: The amount of energy involved in exerting a force on an object as it moves.

  1. Set up the stations in advance of the activity. Place station labels (with station numbers only) at each location.

    Station 1 (electric field): Supply plastic spoons, wool or rabbit fur, bits of plastic foam cup, and paper.

    Station 2 (magnetic field): Place the piece of paper in the box and the box on top of the magnet. Situate the container of iron filings nearby.

    Station 3 (electromagnet): Using the center of the wire, tightly coil the insulated wire around one nail, leaving about the same amount of wire on either side, and place the battery nearby. (The strength of the nail's magnetic field is proportional to both the battery current and the number of coils of wire around the nail.) Place the second nail and the paper clips at the station.

    Station 4 (mechanical to heat energy): Place 100 milliliters of glycerin in each plastic foam cup. Place metal spoons, alcohol thermometers, tape, magnifying glass, and paper towels at the station. Have student teams alternate cups of glycerin (each with its own spoon and thermometer) so that one cup will have time to cool while the other is being used.

    Station 5 (electrical to heat energy): Set up a circuit similar to Station 3, but place a small socket and light bulb in place of the electromagnet.

    Station 6 (potential to kinetic to mechanical energy): Set up two pendulums of exactly the same length. Tie them from the same point on a ring stand or from a ruler or meter stick that can project over the desk edge.

    Station 7 (chemical to heat energy): Do as a demonstration before students visit stations. Put goggles on. Choose two splints of the same weight. Burn one in a beaker by lighting it at its center (relight if needed until the splint is completely burned). Ask students to share their ideas about any energy changes that took place. Set up the balance so students can weigh each beaker.

  2. Organize students into teams and distribute the student handouts.

  3. Brainstorm with students about different types of energy. Ask them how many energy sources they use each day. Review each kind of energy (and any associated fields) with students. Write the equation E = mc2 on the board and ask students what kind of energy they think Einstein was referring to in the E in his famous equation.

  4. Review safety protocols for Stations 3 and 5. Caution students not to leave wires connected to the battery for more than 30 seconds. The battery, the electromagnetic nail, and the wire in Station 3 will get fairly hot, as will the battery and light bulb in Station 5. Supervise students as they complete these stations.

  5. Have student teams rotate through all the stations, and facilitate if needed. After completing all the stations, have students individually answer the questions on the "Energy's Invisible World" handout. Then have students discuss their answers as a team. Once all teams are done, go through each station, discuss what kinds of forces and energy transfers occurred, and reconcile any differences in student answers. (See Activity Answer for more information.) If students are having trouble with the idea of conservation of energy, help them understand what parts are contained in each system they studied and clarify the differences between open and closed systems. Conclude by revisiting the E = mc2 equation and asking students again what the E in the equation stands for. (Any manifestation of energy in a system.)

  6. As an extension, have students further explore electromagnets. Announce a contest-a prize to whoever can pick up the most paper clips. Leave a pile of batteries, nails, and wire on the table and let students design their own electromagnets. The ones that catch on will use multiple nails as a core and place more coils of wire around their nails to strengthen their electromagnets.

Activity Answer

The following is a description of what is occurring at each station.

Station 1: Students are examining the effects of an electric field produced by rubbing a plastic spoon on fur. Once the spoon is charged (negatively), it will attract an uncharged object like a piece of paper through electrostatic induction. The large negative charge on the spoon repels the electrons in the piece of paper and leaves the side of the paper near the spoon slightly positive. (Positive charges-in the nucleus of each atom within the paper-hardly move at all.) Then, the negative spoon attracts the now positive side of the paper. If students are careful in their approach to the paper, they should be able to make it "dance."

Plastic foam becomes instantly negatively charged when in contact with another negatively charged object. The bits of plastic foam acquire a negative charge when they touch the spoon and are repelled immediately. It is impossible to catch a piece of plastic foam, no matter how close to the spoon it is held. If students claim they can, have them recharge their spoons (the charge leaks away quickly on humid days).

Station 2: Students should realize that the field from the magnet is exerting a force on the iron particles. Student diagrams should show the filings aligning to the north and south field lines. Students may need to be generous with the iron filings to observe any patterns. If the magnet is weak, have students place it under the paper in the box rather than under the box.

Station 3: The point of this station is that the magnetic field can do work. It can lift objects as the energy of the field is transferred to the paper clips. The electromagnet at this station can be the catalyst for a discussion of how electricity and magnetism are linked.

Station 4: This station shows how mechanical energy (stirring of the glycerin) can be turned into heat energy. (Students' muscles also generate heat as they work to stir the glycerin.) Students need to read the thermometer very carefully. Temperature changes of only a few tenths to one degree are expected.

Station 5: The light bulb demonstrates how electrical energy can be converted to light and heat energy. Most of the light bulb's energy is given off as heat. If you have time, you may want to discuss how a battery works-that it hosts a chemical reaction and that the energy of that reaction supplies the electrical energy when a battery is connected to something.

Station 6: The pendulum presents an example of multiple energy transfers. The work students do when they lift the pendulum up is stored as potential energy. When released, the potential energy is converted throughout the arc to kinetic energy. At the bottom of the arc, the pendulum now has converted all its potential to kinetic energy. The kinetic energy is then converted into mechanical energy (plus a bit of heat and sound energy—the "click" heard on impact) when the moving bob hits the stationary one. The motionless bob, when struck, then transfers the mechanical energy to kinetic and moves in an arc until the kinetic is converted to potential energy and the bob stops and swings back down again. With each swing, the pendulum bobs swing lower and lower. This is due to friction at the pivot point, in which small amounts of energy are being converted to heat, and to air resistance (which also creates friction). If there were no friction, the pendulum would swing forever. (Students may miss the fact that, initially, it is the food they eat that gives them the energy to use their muscles to exert the force and supply the energy to lift the pendulum bob. Even earlier in the process, it is the sun—an example of E = mc2—that provided the energy that made their food possible.)

Station 7: This demonstration is the most complex of the energy change scenarios in this activity. If students have had a limited exposure to chemical reaction, such as the combustion of wood, this would be a good time to review students' observations in detail. Discuss what the reactants of this combustion reaction are (wood and O2), and what the products of the reactions are (carbon, CO2, and water).

Student Handout Questions

  1. At which station(s) did you observe the following field effects?

    a) a magnetic field exerted a force on an object (Stations 2, 3)

    b) an electric field applied an attractive force on an object (Station 1)

    c) an electric field applied a repulsive force on an object (Station 1)

    d) an electric field caused the formation of a magnetic field (Station 3)

  2. At which station(s) did you observe the following energy transfers?

    a) mechanical energy to heat energy (Station 4)

    b) electrical energy to heat energy (Stations 3, 5)

    c) potential energy to kinetic energy (Station 6)

    d) mechanical energy to kinetic energy (Station 6)

    e) kinetic energy to mechanical energy (Station 4*, 6)

    f) chemical energy to heat energy (Station 7)

    g) kinetic energy to sound energy (Station 6)

    h) electrical energy to light energy (Station 5)

    *This one is a bit tricky. Students may not consider moving a spoon in glycerin to be energy but of course it is. At Station 4, mechanical energy (hand moving) is converted to kinetic energy (motion of the spoon) and then to mechanical energy (spoon moving through glycerin) and finally, to heat energy. Stepping back further, students eat food (chemical potential energy) that enabled their muscles to move the spoon.

  3. At which of the stations did you observe one kind of energy being converted to more than one other kind of energy? Draw a simple diagram to show the steps in the conversion of energy at each of these stations.

    Possible answers:

    Station 5: electrical energy => heat and light energy

    Station 6: mechanical energy (picking up the pendulum bob) => potential energy => kinetic energy => sound and mechanical energy (hitting the second bob) => kinetic energy => potential energy

    Station 7: mechanical energy (to light the lighter) => chemical energy (burning gas) => light and heat energy => chemical energy (burning splint) => light and heat energy

  4. The law of conservation of energy says that energy cannot be created or destroyed; the total energy in a closed system remains constant (a system is a group of interrelated parts that function together as a whole). Design a procedure showing how you would test this law by modifying the open-system setups at Station 5, 6, or 7. Students may arrive at different ways to make these open systems closed. At Station 5, an experiment would need to be designed to capture and measure the heat escaping from the light bulb. At Station 6, friction must somehow be accounted for, both friction from the air and friction at the pivot. At Station 7, an experiment must be designed to capture and measure the energy given off by the burning splint.

Links and Books

Web Sites

NOVA—Einstein's Big Idea
Hear top physicists explain E = mc2, discover the legacy of the equation, see how much energy matter contains, learn how today's physicists are working with the equation, read quotes from Einstein, and more on this companion Web site.

All About Energy Quest
Presents how energy is a part of daily life.

Energy Kid's Page
Features various sections about energy, including what it is and the forms it takes. Includes time lines, facts, and a quiz about energy.


Energy Projects for Young Scientists
by Richard C. Adams and Robert Gardner. Franklin Watts, 2002.
Offers instructions for a variety of projects and experiments related to solar, thermal, electrical, kinetic, and potential energy.

The Hidden World of Forces
by Jack R. White. Putnam, 1987.
Discusses some of the forces at work in the universe, such as electromagnetism, gravitation, surface tension, and friction.

Kinetic and Potential Energy: Understanding Changes Within Physical Systems
by Jennifer Viegas. Rosen Publishing Group, 2005.
Uses everyday examples to explain the concepts behind kinetic and potential energy.

Stop Faking It!: Energy
by William C. Robertson. NSTA Press, 2002.
Provides information and activities to help teachers and students understand concepts related to energy.


The "Energy's Invisible World" activity aligns with the following National Science Education Standards (see

Grades 5-8
Science Standard

Physical Science

  • Transfer of energy

Grades 9-12
Science Standard

Physical Science

  • Motions and forces
  • Conservation of energy and the increase in disorder

Classroom Activity Author

Jeff Lockwood taught high school astronomy, physics, and Earth science for 28 years. He has authored numerous curriculum projects and has provided instruction on curriculum development and science teaching methods for more than a decade.

Teacher's Guide
Einstein's Big Idea

Video is not required for this activity