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CC5: Energy and Matter: Flows, Cycles, and Conservation

Tracking fluxes of energy and matter into, out of, and within systems helps one understand the systems' possibilities and limitations. (NRC Framework 2012, p. 84)

Introduction to CC5: Energy and Matter: Flows, Cycles, and Conservation

from NGSS Appendix G - Crosscutting Concepts

Energy and Matter are essential concepts in all disciplines of science and engineering, often in connection with systems. “The supply of energy and of each needed chemical element restricts a system’s operation—for example, without inputs of energy (sunlight) and matter (carbon dioxide and water), a plant cannot grow. Hence, it is very informative to track the transfers of matter and energy within, into, or out of any system under study. 

“In many systems there also are cycles of various types. In some cases, the most readily observable cycling may be of matter—for example, water going back and forth between Earth’s atmosphere and its surface and subsurface reservoirs. Any such cycle of matter also involves associated energy transfers at each stage, so to fully understand the water cycle, one must model not only how water moves between parts of the system but also the energy transfer mechanisms that are critical for that motion. 

“Consideration of energy and matter inputs, outputs, and flows or transfers within a system or process are equally important for engineering. A major goal in design is to maximize certain types of energy output while minimizing others, in order to minimize the energy inputs needed to achieve a desired task.” (p. 95)

K-12 Progressions

from NGSS Appendix G - Crosscutting Concepts

K-2 3-5 6-8 9-12
Energy and Matter: Flows, Cycles, and Conservation

Students observe objects may break into smaller pieces, be put together into larger pieces, or change shapes.

Students learn matter is made of particles and energy can be transferred in various ways and between objects. Students observe the conservation of matter by tracking matter flows and cycles before and after processes and recognizing the total weight of substances does not change.

Students learn matter is conserved because atoms are conserved in physical and chemical processes. They also learn within a natural or designed system, the transfer of energy drives the motion and/or cycling of matter. Energy may take different forms (e.g. energy in fields, thermal energy, energy of motion). The transfer of energy can be tracked as energy flows through a designed or natural system.

Students learn that the total amount of energy and matter in closed systems is conserved. They can describe changes of energy and matter in a system in terms of energy and matter flows into, out of, and within that system. They also learn that energy cannot be created or destroyed. It only moves between one place and another place, between objects and/or fields, or between systems. Energy drives the cycling of matter within and between systems. In nuclear processes, atoms are not conserved, but the total number of protons plus neutrons is conserved.

Progression of CC5: Energy and Matter: Flows, Cycles, and Conservation

from A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (pages 95-96)

The core ideas of matter and energy and their development across the grade bands are spelled out in detail in [the physical sciences disciplinary core ideas]. What is added in this crosscutting discussion is recognition that an understanding of these core ideas can be informative in examining systems in life science, earth and space science, and engineering contexts. Young children are likely to have difficulty studying the concept of energy in depth — everyday language surrounding energy contains many shortcuts that lead to misunderstandings. For this reason, the concept is not developed at all in K-2 and only very generally in grades 3-5. Instead, the elementary grades focus on recognition of conservation of matter and of the flow of matter into, out of, and within systems under study. The role of energy transfers in conjunction with these flows is not introduced until the middle grades and only fully developed by high school. 

Clearly, incorrect beliefs — such as the perception that food or fuel is a form of energy—would lead to elementary grade students’ misunderstanding of the nature of energy. Hence, although the necessity for food or fuel can be discussed, the language of energy needs to be used with care so as not to further establish such misconceptions. By middle school, a more precise idea of energy — for example, the understanding that food or fuel undergoes a chemical reaction with oxygen that releases stored energy — can emerge. The common misconceptions can be addressed with targeted instructional interventions (including student-led investigations), and appropriate terminology can be used in discussing energy across the disciplines.

Matter transfers are less fraught in this respect, but the idea of atoms is not introduced with any specificity until middle school. Thus, at the level of grades 3-5, matter flows and cycles can be tracked only in terms of the weight of the substances before and after a process occurs, such as sugar dissolving in water. Mass/weight distinctions and the idea of atoms and their conservation (except in nuclear processes) are taught in grades 6-8, with nuclear substructure and the related conservation laws for nuclear processes introduced in grades 9-12.

Performance Expectations Associated with CC5: Energy and Matter: Flows, Cycles, and Conservation

K-2 3-5 6-8 9-12
2-PS1-3 4-PS3-1


Additional Resources

A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (pages 94-96)

NGSS Appendix G - Crosscutting Concepts

Bozemanscience Video

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