# Educators explore innovative 'theater' as a way to help students learn physics

##### July 26, 2013

In a newly released study, education researchers report that personifying energy allowed students to grapple with difficult ideas about how energy works. Contrasted with more traditional lectures and graphs, this innovative instructional technique may be useful for teaching about other ideas in physical science, which commonly deals with things that change form over time.

Energy is a very important concept across many fields of science, and is a key focus of the new national science standards. Energy is also a central player in several global issues, such as and fuel economy. However, energy is a challenging concept to fully understand. While energy can be precisely defined mathematically, it is often difficult to grasp intuitively. Energy can change form – a ball held at some height has energy due to the pull of gravity, which gradually becomes energy of motion as the ball falls. However, no energy is lost in the process, a property called "conservation of energy." These basic ideas may seem straightforward, but when applied to real world situations (like ), they become very challenging to think about.

"Existing representations [such as bar charts] don't emphasize the thing that we care most about energy in physics, which is that it's conserved," said lead author Rachel Scherr, of Seattle Pacific University. These other instructional methods also don't show how energy moves among different objects in a system.

In the current study, the researchers report their ongoing examination of an activity that they have created, called "Energy Theater." Energy Theater is specifically designed to help learners visualize energy and how it dynamically changes form and location. In Energy Theater, learners (K-12 science teachers in this study) each play the role of one "chunk" of energy, and indicate with hand gestures what form that energy has (e.g., chemical, motion, gravitational, thermal). Different objects are represented by loops of rope on the ground, and learners can move from object to object, demonstrating energy moving between those objects. While energy is not actually a material substance, this metaphor can help learners think about how a fixed amount of energy can flow between different objects.

For example, the group may be given the problem of, "Show what happens when a hand pushes a box across a table." Participants would first stand in the area representing the hand, making the gesture for "chemical energy." One by one, they would move to the area representing the box, changing their gesture to "energy of motion." Other scenarios might include how energy flows when an incandescent light bulb is turned on. The group must work together to decide how the "theater" will play out for a particular situation, making complicated decisions about just where and when the energy will flow and take different forms.

"These elaborate stories about energy dynamics are not usually told," said co-author Hunter Close of Texas State University. "In order to tell [these stories], we have to act them out, because they are so complicated." The authors note that the specific attributes of Energy Theater help support this deeper learning: "I think the important message is that diverse learners can figure out all kinds of sophisticated energy scenarios once they have a representation for doing so," said Scherr. Energy Theater automatically keeps track of how much energy is located in different places, emphasizing conservation. It also serves as a visual "memory" for the group, helping them to keep track of the different moving parts. "It's also kind of fun and enticing," said Scherr. "It's an opportunity to interact. It's easy to feel very involved in what the group is doing."

Current evidence for the effectiveness of the activity is that learners are able to generate very detailed energy tracking diagrams after the activity. Analysis of the groups' conversations as they work to script out the "play" also demonstrates the complexity of the ideas that the group is working to understand.

The team suggests that Energy Theater is a useful addition to more traditional instruction, enriching the student's development of ideas about . This approach might also be fruitfully applied to other areas of science involving dynamic processes – for example, people might represent atoms in a substance, which can change state from solid to liquid to gas. The authors report that teachers typically appreciate the tactile nature of the activity, its appropriateness for English language learners, and the fact that all students have to participate.

Energy Theater also gives students an authentic, broad repertoire of problem-solving strategies. "Learning is done by people, not by brains in jars," said Close. Added Scherr, "In normal life, when we're trying to figure out something together, we do it using our words and tone of voice and gestures or body and we might act something out. Energy Theater legitimizes all those things and uses them to solve sophisticated problems."

Explore further: Educators explore innovative 'theater' as a way to learn physics

## Related Stories

#### Educators explore innovative 'theater' as a way to learn physics

July 15, 2013

In a study released last week, education researchers found that personifying energy allowed students to grapple with difficult ideas about how energy works. Contrasted with more traditional lectures and graphs, this innovative ...

#### How useful is fracking anyway? Study explores return of investment

June 17, 2013

The value of a fuel's long-term usefulness and viability is judged through its energy return on investment; the comparison between the eventual fuel and the energy invested to create it. The energy return on investment (EROI) ...

#### Most sustainable office in the world

July 1, 2013

In Munich, a newly erected office building, called the NuOffice, has been awarded an internationally recognised green design certification in platinum, called the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certificate.

#### Building homes that make more power than they take

July 24, 2013

(AP)—Homes being built in the Hudson Valley town of New Paltz offer prospective buyers wooded lots, pretty views and—oh yes—the promise of thumbing your nose at the power utility.

#### NREL launches interactive tool for developing a cleaner energy future

January 15, 2013

The U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has created an energy analysis tool to help individuals and educators experiment with future energy use scenarios. The interactive Buildings, ...

#### New report identifies strategies to achieve net-zero energy homes

May 15, 2013

Chances are you know how many miles your car logs for each gallon or tankful of gas, but you probably have only a foggy idea of how much energy your house consumes, even though home energy expenditures often account for a ...

## Recommended for you

#### Researchers make augmented reality a group experience

July 26, 2017

Sit on Disney Research's Magic Bench and you may have an elephant hand you a glowing orb. Or you might get rained on. Or a tiny donkey might saunter by and kick the bench.

#### Musk, Zuckerberg duel over artificial intelligence

July 25, 2017

Visionary entrepreneur Elon Musk and Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg were trading jabs on social media over artificial intelligence this week in a debate that has turned personal between the two technology luminaries.

#### Adobe bidding Flash farewell in 2020

July 25, 2017

Adobe on Tuesday said its Flash software that served up video and online games for decades will be killed off over the next three years.

#### Microsoft Paint brushed aside

July 24, 2017

Microsoft on Monday announced the end of days for its pioneering Paint application as it focuses on software for 3-D drawing.

#### Target 'best connected neighbors' to stop spread of infection in developing countries

July 24, 2017

Our lives benefit from social networks: the contact and dialogue between family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. However these networks can also cost lives by transmitting infection or misinformation, particularly in ...

#### UK to tighten rules on drones after near-misses with planes

July 22, 2017

British officials announced plans Saturday to further regulate drone use in a bid to prevent accidents and threats to commercial aviation.