Physical Science

How do I introduce Gravitational Potential Energy.

Tue Dec 02, 2014 10:57 PM


I am a senior at IU studying physics education and I am working on a unit about conservation laws. I have decent ideas for how to teach conservation of momentum and how to introduce kinetic energy, but I'm having trouble coming up with a good way to transition from momentum to energy. I'd like to introduce gravitational potential energy first. Any suggestions?



Emily Paulsen
Emily Paulsen
10 Activity Points

Mon Dec 08, 2014 10:43 AM

I did a search in the Learning Center and came up with a couple of resources. Here is the link...

Betty Paulsell
Betty Paulsell
48505 Activity Points

Mon Dec 08, 2014 4:57 PM

One possiblitity would be to use a marble raceway. Have two raceways set up at different angles. Start marbles on the two raceways from the same height and see how far they puch a cup. I have done this with rulers that have a groove down the center and paper cups cut in half. Students can start to see pattens that can then be used to start looking at gravitaional potential energy.

David Gillam
David Gillam
1165 Activity Points

Tue Dec 09, 2014 9:10 PM

Hi Emily,
There are many ways to introduce Gravitational Potential Energy to students at all educational levels. Naturally, the nature of "What do you observe? How do you explain it?" varies with mathematical analysis but the conceptual ideas are available on many levels.
Have you used simulations in your teaching environments? If so, you may wish to visit the PHet set of simulations. An interesting simulation is entitled Energy Skate Park Basics. Check it out and download and try it from this web site.

Here are sample learning goals associated with the simulation:
Sample Learning Goals

Explain the Conservation of Mechanical Energy concept using kinetic energy (KE) and gravitational potential energy (PE).
Describe how the Energy Bar and Pie Charts relate to position and speed.
Explain how changing the Skater Mass affects energy. (Tab 1)
Explain how changing the Track Friction affects energy. (Tab 2)
Predict position or estimate speed from Energy Bar and Pie Charts.
Calculate speed or height at one position from information about a different position.
Calculate KE and PE at one position from information about a different position.
Design a skate park using the concepts of mechanical energy and energy conservation.

You may also type in gravitational potential energy and see a list of other simulations.

Finally, there are some very useful resources available within the Learning Center. Other responders to your questions suggested doing a search. Please try in. In the meantime, I will put together a collection of resources in post them in another reply to your thread shortly.

Thanks for starting this discussion and please let us know how you decide to teach about gravitational potential energy, or you may already have done so. Your sharing is a wonderful way to inform and to mentor many of the science educators who will visit this forum and read the replies.

We look forward to hearing from you again.

p.s. look for the collection, too

Patricia Rourke
Patricia Rourke
45890 Activity Points

Tue Dec 09, 2014 10:48 PM

Here is a collection of resources from the Learning Center with supportive ideas and lessons on teaching about potential energy.
Chime in and let us know if you discover something of interest.

Potential Energy Collection
(11 items)
Podcast: Energy: Stop Faking It!, Simple Machines!: Potential and Kinetic Energy
Podcast: Energy: Stop Faking It!, Simple Machines!: Law of Conservation of Energy
Podcast: Picture-Perfect Science Lessons: Using Children’s Books to Guide Inquiry: A 5E Lesson Using Roller Coasters by Marla Frazee

Patricia Rourke
Patricia Rourke
45890 Activity Points

Sat Feb 21, 2015 1:03 PM

I hope this is not too late to help. I designed a lab activity where students measure the efficiency of using a rotary electric motor to lift a mass. Here is the video:

Antonio Chaves
Antonio Chaves
150 Activity Points

Sat Feb 21, 2015 5:51 PM

Hi Antonio,
It is never too late to jump into a conversation to share; this is the neat thing about online forums offering connections to your science community at any time and on many devices.
Thank you for sharing your video on how you introduce GPE. That is a great way to introduce the topic and to garner the interest of students. Some visitors to this thread may appreciate your sharing any written material that you may have to accompany your activity. Encouraging students to engineer similar devices is a solid path to new engineering guidelines, too.
Thanks a bunch for sharing.

Patricia Rourke
Patricia Rourke
45890 Activity Points

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