Curricular Unit: Energy Systems and Solutions

Contributed by: Office of Educational Partnerships, Clarkson University, Potsdam, NY

A young girl at a table attaches a 4-blade turbine to a PVC support stand.
A student creates a wind turbine.


The Energy Systems and Solutions unit brings students through the exploration of science and engineering concepts as they relate to energy issues in everyday life. Issues surrounding energy production and energy consumption provide a relevant theme for learning basic science, math and engineering concepts, and also provide a convenient platform for introducing current scientific and technological developments into the curriculum. Energy-related issues touch the lives of every student. This project-based curriculum follows an engineering problem solving approach; students simultaneously learn and use scientific and mathematical content and processes as they solve an energy-related problem that is meaningful to them. By challenging them with a problem to solve, students are engaged in scientific and engineering processes, thereby reinforcing subject matter retention and targeting a wide range of learning styles in the classroom. The unit is organized into three main sections. The first section includes various activities designed to help students understand the problem at hand—namely, the issues surrounding our society's energy situation—so that they can realize the importance of what they are studying and the significance of their proposed solutions. An understanding of the problem forms the basis for the student learning that takes place in the second section, which includes basic energy concepts (forms, states, conversions, efficiency, etc.), content required by state and federal science educational standards. Students learn these concepts by participating engaging activities designed to show the relevance of the science material to the real world as well as to the solution of their assigned problem. Finally, in the last section of the unit, students apply the concepts they learned to complete a culminating project that requires them to consider what actions they can take to reduce our dependence of fossil fuels or otherwise provide a positive solution for our current energy crisis.

Engineering Connection

In a broad sense, engineers solve problems, and through their participation in the Energy Systems and Solutions unit, students are modeling what engineers "do." Engineering brings science and math to life, largely through applications toward problem solving. Students apply scientific concepts (forms/states of energy; relationship between energy, work and power; units of energy and power; energy conversions; efficiency; systems and system boundaries, inputs and outputs) and mathematical tools (basic grade-level appropriate math skills such as unit conversions, algebraic equations; graphing) to analyze information and results. Students discuss the pros and cons of their various energy-related decisions, helping them learn to evaluate the impact of their choices in a logical, systematic manner.

The Energy Systems and Solutions unit follows a widely-accepted problem solving method based on a fundamental process used by practicing engineers. Students start by defining their problem, brainstorming and exploring potential solutions. Then they test and evaluate their ideas, and ultimately choose the optimum solution, which they implement. The final stage is to communicate of their results, a skill of ultimate importance to practicing engineers. Through every step of the problem solving process students apply the math skills and science content they are learning. Moreover, through the interconnections with societal, political, environmental and economic themes, the material demonstrates that engineering problem solving is not just a technical or mathematical endeavor, but relates significantly to socially relevant issues (renewable vs. nonrenewable resources; fossil fuel resource depletion; global climate change; rising energy costs; environmental and economic impacts related to alternative energy resource development). This humanitarian and compassionate aspect of engineering appeals to a wide range of students, is often left out of more technology-based programs.

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

Suggest an alignment not listed above

Unit Overview

The unit includes eight basic lessons, each with background information for the instructor as well as suggested teaching schemes. Each lesson contains a number of associated activities, several of which are optional or interchangeable depending on specific classroom situations. The unit is typically taught over 22 to 25 (40-45 minute) classroom periods. This timeframe can be adjusted depending on the specific goals of the particular class, and ample activities are provided to extend the unit to a longer timeframe. Estimated teaching days are included in the outline of lessons and activities in the Unit Schedule section. Note that the teaching days are based on including all activities listed in the lesson plan.

The first two lessons complete the initial stages of the problem solving method—students are introduced to the problem and learn to use a systematic problem solving method (they define the problem). The next four lessons provide students with some of the tools they need to solve the problem—mathematical skills (data collection and manipulation, graphing), system diagram analysis, and fundamental knowledge about energy-related concepts and issues (scientific and societal). While learning these tools, students are gathering information about potential problem solutions, including some degree of analysis of the different solutions available. The last two lessons bring students through the final stages of analyzing and solving the problem, culminating in the production of a final project and presentation (oral and/or written) of their chosen solution.

Unit Schedule

The following table provides an outline of the lesson plan order and associated activities in each of the three sections of the unit, along with estimated time requirements. From within each lesson and activity, linked attachments provide additional separate Word, Excel and PowerPoint files that further support the materials being presented.

A table shows which activities go with which lessons.


Homework, activity sheets and quizzes are integrated throughout the curriculum for assessment. The final, culminating project provides a summative assessment of students' learning and ability to apply their new knowledge and conceptual understanding to define energy problems in their own lives, and design and implement solutions to those particular problems.

The set of specific assessment components includes:

Lesson 1:

  • Energy Choices quiz following Energy Choices Board Game

Lesson 2:

  • Problem Solving Process group activity (worksheet turned in or discussed)

Lesson 3:

  • Vocabulary sheets (optional, check if completed)
  • Homework assignment: Big Bad Wolf (work/power)
  • Human Power Activity data sheet and discussion questions
  • Energy Basics Quiz

Lesson 4:

  • Energy Forms and Conversions Activity discussion questions

Lesson 5:

  • Energy Sources and Conversions Worksheet
  • Renew-a-Bead Activity data sheet and discussion questions
  • Homework assignment: Fossil Fuel Use (graphing, questions)
  • Energy Resources Research Activity questions, oral presentation and written answers to discussion questions
  • Energy Systems Diagrams Activity discussion questions
  • Energy Sources, Systems and Conversions Quiz

Lesson 6:

  • Efficiency of a System Activity data sheet and discussion questions

Lesson 7:

  • Watt Meter Activity data sheet, discussion questions
  • Homework: Home Energy Audit
  • Light vs. Heat Bulbs Activity data sheet, discussion questions, Life Cycle Analysis
  • Homework: Home Light Bulb Use

Lesson 8:

  • Homework: Energy Project Ideas
  • Homework: Energy Decisions
  • Final Culminating Project

Other Related Information

This unit was originally published by the Clarkson University K-12 Project Based Learning Partnership Program and may be accessed at


Susan Powers; Jan DeWaters


© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2008 Clarkson University

Supporting Program

Office of Educational Partnerships, Clarkson University, Potsdam, NY


This unit was developed under National Science Foundation grants no. DUE 0428127 and DGE 0338216. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.