Exploring Potential and Kinetic Energy

5 fun experiments that encourage problem solving and play.

During a physics unit, have students explore potential and kinetic energy with these five fun experiments that encourage problem solving and play.

Balancing Lever
Construct a lever that can be used as a balancing scale or a catapult!

4 plastic cups
Sturdy stick (could use a chopstick)

1. Insert stick inside of straw.
2. Tape straw to center of the ruler (back).
3. Tape ends of stick to bottoms of two of your cups.
4. ( For balancing scale): Tape the bottoms of the other two cups to the top of the ruler.

This experiment was inspired by Jameson’s Lab.


Ramps, Angles and Measuring
Integrate math and science by constructing ramps. Kids use blocks (or other materials on hand) to construct their ramps. Make sure all ramps are made with the same materials for accurate results. You will need to secure your ramps with duct tape.

Kids investigate how different angles can affect the speed and distance of a ball.

Before you test out your ramps, have kids make a prediction. Which ramp do they think will make the ball go the farthest and the fastest? If you’re working with older kids, have them measure the angle of each of their ramps. Younger kids can compare their ramps by the number of blocks holding it up (example above: 5 blocks vs. 3).

Have kids measure the distance produced by each ramp (standard or nonstandard, depending on age group). Which ramp helped the ball travel the farthest distance? Time the ball going down each ramp. Which ramp made the ball go the fastest?


Let’s Swing
Explore forces and motion by creating a simple machine to demonstrate energy transfer. This experiment comes from the Young Engineers’ Club. Kids create two pendulums using string, modeling clay and two chairs. Once they set up their pendulums, they experiment with energy transfer. One child holds one of the clay pendulums still, while another releases the other pendulum. When one pendulum is in swinging motion, the child releases the one next to it. What happens? Kids will see that the pendulums will start swinging together! Energy from the first pendulum is transferred to the second one (through the string).


Energy Transfer
To help kids understand energy transfer, conduct this simple experiment that demonstrates potential energy (stored) and kinetic energy (moving). Also, talk about momentum, speed and mass.

1. Bounce a basketball and observe how high it bounced.
2. Drop a tennis ball, making note of its bounce.
3. Now, hold the tennis ball on top of the basketball and drop them at the same time.

You will notice that the tennis ball bounced much higher than before. The basketball, on the other hand, didn’t bounce as high. “Momentum / energy from the basketball transferred to the tennis ball.” –  Physics.org. The basketball lost energy. The tennis ball gained energy, causing it to bounce much higher.

Try holding the basketball on top of the tennis ball. Does weight make a difference? Record your findings.


Students discover that friction is a force through these fun science experiments (featured above):

Bottled Rice Experiment With a Pencil – Jameson’s Lab
Tin Can, Marbles and Clay – Thinking Fountain
Genie in a Bottle – Steve Spangler
Sandpaper Ramps – Lights, Camera, Learn!
Climbing Man – Science Toy Maker
Phone Book Friction + Floating Paper Air Friction, Salt / Marble Trick, Sticks, and MORE! – Cocopreme

Erin Bittman is a designer turned teacher. Check out her blog E Is for Explore!

Posted by Erin Bittman

Check out my blog eisforexplore.blogspot.com!

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