Concepts across the Sciences: Energy and Matter

This post is by Jacqueline Katz, the 2022-2023 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Library of Congress.

The relationship between energy and matter is central to all disciplines of science. As students progress through the scientific disciplines they are asked to look at matter and energy through different lenses, but often fail to connect concepts like ATP in biology and potential energy in physics.

Image from an art exhibit featuring neon

Neon refinery exhibit, Weiss Energy Hall, Museum of Natural Science, Houston, Texas. Carol Highsmith

Show students this image taken by Carol Highsmith at the Museum of Natural Science in Houston, Texas, prior to a unit on energy in either biology, chemistry, or physics without providing context. Ask them to complete the Primary Source Analysis Tool. After students work with the primary source individually, facilitate a class discussion, using the following prompts to guide the discussion:

  • What evidence of movement do you see in the picture?
  • Where do you see matter?
  • Where do you see energy?
  • What could this system represent?

Students will likely identify the “tubes” as matter and the material inside of them as “energy.” Deepen student thinking by asking if matter and energy are distinct. Then, show them this image from Groves, Texas, without identifying it and allow time for analysis. Tell them that both images represent the same thing, and ask students to hypothesize what the images represent using the sentence stem, “I think _____ because _____.” After students generate and share their hypotheses, distribute or display the item record for each image. What do they notice in the images now that they didn’t see earlier? What new questions do they have?

Once students understand that these images represent an oil refinery, facilitate a conversation about flow of energy from the bonds of the oil molecule (matter) to the environment as it is processed. Direct students to identify the different colors in the image: What do they think this means about the amount of energy being released from the oil?

Tell them that oil refining requires the processes of separation, conversion, and treatment. Instruct students to use evidence from the image to determine where in the model these steps are taking place. Students can use the “I think ____ because _____” sentence stem. If students are struggling to find evidence, prompt them to think about the structure of the various glass tubes as well as the temperature of neon moving through it.

It might also be interesting to discuss the presence of the neon distillery exhibit at the Museum of Natural Science. Ask students:

  • What message might this exhibit be trying to communicate?
  • Does the location of the museum affect your thinking?
  • Would you modify the exhibit in any way to alter the message?

This thought-provoking image allows for a discussion of the relationship between energy and matter across multiple disciplines, but it also can lead to conversations about course content and scientific communication.

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