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The importance of teaching energy

Energy is a science topic that has implications beyond the classroom since it is so closely interwoven with several global challenges we are facing today. Fuel shortages are increasingly having an impact on the cost of living throughout society whilst the climate crisis, driven by our voracious consumption of fossil fuels, continues to devastate the environment to the detriment of human populations and natural biodiversity alike. In schools, we have the opportunity not just to light the kindling for potential future scientists and innovators that may be working directly on these issues, but also to provide every student with the scientific literacy needed to make informed lifestyle and political choices and be a part of the solution.

The political and media attention on the topic of energy can also bring with it misconceptions about the use of terminology that can be difficult for our students to shake off. We commonly hear about buying, using and running out of energy as though it were a physical commodity. In everyday language, feeling ‘energetic’ can also be an emotional or physical state. Conveying the scientific properties of energy relies upon consistent language and modelling that will enable students to grasp the underlying principles and form a firm foundation of understanding.

The 2021 update to the ISEB syllabus brought updated definitions that may have been unfamiliar to teachers who do not specialise in physics. The notion of ‘energy types’ was replaced with ‘energy stores’, and the terms ‘light energy’ and ‘electrical energy’ were redefined as ‘pathways’ through which energy can be transferred from one store to another.

Charles Tracey, Head of Education at the Institute of Physics, celebrated this newer model when it was first introduced into the National Curriculum, as it helps us to see energy not as a substance in itself, but as a quantitative tool to explain processes and understand changes. For teachers who are looking for concrete examples, Tracey provides some useful illustrations of changes in stores of energy, such as when moving an object to a higher shelf or travelling by car from London to Birmingham.

Having up-to-date teaching resources will be critical to ensure that students are learning these definitions. Hodder Education's (formerly Galore Park) Common Entrance 13+ Science for ISEB CE and KS3 textbook has updated its definitions accordingly, and not just in the expected chapters of the physics section. You will find consistent usage of the terms ‘energy store’ and ‘transfer pathway’ in chapters such as those on photosynthesis and chemical reactions. In the chapters dedicated to energy resources and energy stores, there are also ample opportunities to discuss the social questions regarding how we source and use energy. If you would like to debate the pros and cons of different resources, including fracking and nuclear power, you will find plenty of information for the various sides of the argument.

When it comes to helping future generations face and overcome the big challenges of our time, we should be thinking not just of the knowledge that our students require, but also their ability to use that understanding to make their own ethical and even political decisions.

Stuart Wilson is Head of Science at Eaton House at the Manor Girls' School.

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