Curricular Unit: Energy of Motion

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

Six images: (background) Photo of a girl pushing the back of a vehicle on country road, (left to right) photo of ride cars on a roller coaster loop, a skateboarder jumps with the board floating below his feet, diagrams showing a ball at the top of a ramp with a catch can at the bottom, diagram showing a pendulum at the high, low and opposite high of a swing, and photo of water gushing through an opening in a river's dam.
Motion energy is all around us!
Copyright © 2004 Microsoft Corporation, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, WA 98052-6399 USA. All rights reserved. (five photos); copyright © 2003 Chris Yakacki, ITL Program, University of Colorado at Boulder (two diagrams)


By taking a look at the energy of motion all around us, students learn about the types of energy and their characteristics. They first learn about the two simplest forms of mechanical energy: kinetic and potential energy, as illustrated by pendulums and roller coasters. They come to understand that energy can change from one form into another, and be described and determined by equations. Through the example of a waterwheel, the concepts of and differences between work and power are explained and calculated. Conservation of momentum and collisions are explored, with analogies to popular sports (billiards, baseball, golf), and how elastic and inelastic collisions are considered in the games' design. To show another energy transformation concept, the behavior of energy dissipating into heat by means of friction is presented. Students learn to recognize static friction, kinetic friction and drag, how they work, and how to calculate frictional force. A final lesson integrates the energy of motion concepts, showing how they are interconnected in everyday applications such as skateboards, scooters, roller coasters, trains, cars, planes, trucks and elevators. Through numerous hands-on activities, students swing pendulums, use plastic two-liter bottles to construct model waterwheels, bounce different types of balls, use weights to generate friction data, and roll balls down ramps to collide into cups.

Engineering Connection

Understanding mechanical energy, or the energy of motion, is at the root of so many engineering applications in our world. Engineers design a wide range of consumer and industry devices—vehicles, appliances, computer hardware, factory equipment and even roller coasters—that use mechanical motion. To do this, they pay close attention to how energy is generated, stored and moved. Whether designing elevators, power plants or race cars, engineers take into consideration the concepts of work and power. Engineers collaborate to design dams that generate electricity from the flow of water. Part of this process involves calculations to determine how much power can be generated. Engineers incorporate what they know about momentum and collisions to design protective "crumple zones" and safety devices into vehicles to absorb most of the energy being transferred during a crash. In sports such as baseball and golf, investigating how the human body and equipment interacts with the ball during impact helps engineers design better and safer sports equipment. To reduce drag force and thus improve gas mileage, engineers design vehicles to be more aerodynamic. Engineers understand friction and use it to help control motion; some engineers design braking systems that prevent skidding. When designing vehicles—everything from push scooters to light rail trains to your car—engineers take into account all of the energy of motion concepts, because in real life, these forces are happening and interacting at the same time.

More Curriculum Like This

Puttin' It All Together

On the topic of energy related to motion, this summary lesson ties together the concepts introduced in the previous four lessons and show how the concepts are interconnected in everyday applications. A hands-on activity demonstrates this idea and reinforces students' math skills in calculating energ...

Middle School Lesson
Collisions and Momentum: Bouncing Balls

This lesson introduces the concepts of momentum, elastic and inelastic collisions. Many sports and games, such as baseball and ping-pong, illustrate the ideas of momentum and collisions. Students explore these concepts by bouncing assorted balls on different surfaces and calculating the momentum for...

Bouncing Balls

Students examine how different balls react when colliding with different surfaces, giving plenty of opportunity for them to see the difference between elastic and inelastic collisions, learn how to calculate momentum, and understand the principle of conservation of momentum.

Middle School Activity
Bouncing Balls (for High School)

In this activity, students examine how different balls react when colliding with different surfaces. They learn how to calculate momentum and understand the principle of conservation of momentum.

High School Activity

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.

  • Construct, use, and present arguments to support the claim that when the kinetic energy of an object changes, energy is transferred to or from the object. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Develop a model to describe that when the arrangement of objects interacting at a distance changes, different amounts of potential energy are stored in the system. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Fluently add, subtract, multiply, and divide multi-digit decimals using the standard algorithm for each operation. (Grade 6) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Use variables to represent quantities in a real-world or mathematical problem, and construct simple equations and inequalities to solve problems by reasoning about the quantities. (Grade 7) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Rearrange formulas to highlight a quantity of interest, using the same reasoning as in solving equations. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Solve quadratic equations by inspection (e.g., for x² = 49), taking square roots, completing the square, the quadratic formula and factoring, as appropriate to the initial form of the equation. Recognize when the quadratic formula gives complex solutions and write them as a ± bi for real numbers a and b. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Unit Overview

Overview of topics by lesson: 1) introduction to mechanical energy, specifically potential and kinetic energy and the concept of conservation of energy, 2) examination of waterwheels to learn about work and power and use equations to calculate work and power, 3) more on potential and kinetic energy, plus momentum, elastic and inelastic collisions, and an exploration of sports and games that illustrate the concepts, including conservation of momentum, 4) friction, drag, velocity, converting energy of motion to heat and calculating frictional force, and 5) tying together the concepts from the first four lessons, showing how they interconnect in everyday applications. For four of the activities, a high school version is also provided.

Unit Schedule


See individual lessons and activities.


© 2004 by Regents of the University of Colorado

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under grants from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation (GK-12 grant no. 0338326). However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.