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Energy and Matter: Your How To Guide to the NGSS

May 31, 2024 2 Comments

In this blog post, we delve into the essential concept of energy and matter, a crosscutting theme in science education. Regardless of your teaching level, understanding this concept is crucial for comprehending various phenomena in the natural world. From plant growth to the movement of the planets, these interconnected concepts shape our understanding of the universe.

If you want to learn how to use the Crosscutting Concepts in your classroom, check out this resource.

Energy and Matter: An Overview

This Crosscutting Concept of is seen across science disciplines. But, before we go into specifics, let’s define it.

Matter refers to anything that has mass and takes up space. Matter is composed of particles, such as atoms and molecules. These particles interact with each other through forces. Matter can exist in various states, including solid, liquid, and gas, and it can undergo physical and chemical changes.

On the other hand, energy is the ability to do work or cause change. It exists in many forms and is transferred between objects. Also, its converted from one form to another.


Conservation of matter is a simple idea in science that says the total amount of stuff, or matter, in a closed system stays the same over time, no matter what happens inside it. Picture a container filled with building blocks. You can rearrange them, break them into smaller pieces, or put them together to make bigger structures, but the total number of blocks remains unchanged. This concept applies to all sorts of everyday situations, like mixing ingredients in a recipe or recycling materials. Whether it’s melting ice, burning wood, or combining different substances, the total amount of matter involved remains constant.

Additionally, conservation of energy is a simple concept in science. It states that energy can’t be created nor destroyed. It is only transformed from one form to another. For example, when you turn on a flashlight, electrical energy from the batteries transforms into light and heat. This principle applies to everything around us, from bouncing balls to cooking food. So, whether it’s sunlight powering plants or a roller coaster zooming down a track, the total amount remains constant.

Types of Energy

There are various types of energy, each with its own characteristics. Kinetic energy is the energy of motion. For example, a moving car or a swinging pendulum are forms. Often, we think of thermal energy as the temperature of an object. However, its actually the measure of the motion of particles within a system.

Potential energy is stored. It’s waiting to be released. Its like a stretched rubber band or a book placed on a shelf. Chemical and electrical energy both fall under this category.

Real World Example of Matter and Energy

As an educator, I find it’s useful to have some examples in nature to help me further understand the concept.  However, it’s important that you refer to grade level standards to determine which examples are right for the students in your classroom.  Here are some examples from various disciplines to help you understand this Crosscutting Concept.

Image with a search bar at the top that says eneryg and matter.  There are four images: a picture of cells, the sun, a windmill and solar cell and waves

Physical Science

Physics: In mechanics, the conservation of mechanical energy explains the behavior of objects in motion, such as a pendulum swinging back and forth.

Chemistry: In the combustion of methane, chemicals converted into heat and light energy. This releases carbon dioxide and water as byproducts.

Life Science

Biology: photosynthesis in plants converts light energy into chemical energy stored in glucose molecules. Glucose breaks down during cellular respiration. This process releases energy for cellular processes.

Ecology: Nitrogen is an essential element for living organisms. It moves through various forms and reservoirs within ecosystems through the nitrogen cycle. In the atmosphere, nitrogen exists primarily as diatomic gas (N2), which is inaccessible to most organisms.

Earth and Space Science

Earth Science: The water cycle is an excellent example of this crosscutting concept. In this cycle, energy from the sun drives the evaporation of water from oceans and land surfaces. It then condenses into clouds and precipitates as rain or snow, cycling water and matter through different Earth systems.

Environmental Science: This concept is critical for analyzing environmental issues such as pollution and climate change. For example, the combustion of fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to the greenhouse effect and global warming.

The Progression of Energy and Matter Across Grade Levels

The crosscutting concept of energy and matter becomes progressively more intricate as students advance through different grade levels. This complexity is typical of all crosscutting concepts. It ensuresthat learning remains developmentally appropriate for students at each stage. By gradually building upon foundational knowledge and introducing more sophisticated concepts, educators can effectively scaffold learning experiences for students as they deepen their understanding of the interconnectedness of this concept.

Early Elementary: Kindergarten through Second Grade

In the early grades, students learn basic concepts related to energy and matter. For example, they understand that its possible to break into smaller pieces. They also know its possible to assembled into larger structures, or change shapes. This basic understanding sets the stage for deeper exploration of the concepts in later grade levels. 

Wooden blocks stacked

Upper Elementary: Third through Fifth Grade

In upper elementary grades, students expand upon their understanding. Here, they find out that matter is composed of tiny particles. They explore how matter flows and cycles within systems. Concepts such as conservation of matter become more prominent, with students tracking matter flows in terms of weight before and after processes occur, understanding that the total weight of substances remains constant. Additionally, they explore energy transfer. This deeper exploration sets the stage for more complex investigations in middle and high school.

Middle School: Sixth through Eighth Grade

In middle school, students encounter more specific vocabulary. They learned a lot of the major concepts in upper elementary. Now, they’ll get deeper into the intricacies of energy and matter.

They learn that matter is conserved because atoms. Mass is conserved in both physical and chemical processes. Additionally, they explore the relationship between energy and matter within natural or designed systems, understanding that the transfer of energy drives the motion and cycling of matter within these systems. Also, students recognize that energy exists in various forms such as energy in fields, thermal energy, and energy of motion. They further investigate how energy flows through designed or natural systems, allowing them to track the transfer of energy and its impact on the movement and transformations of matter. This increased specificity in vocabulary and concepts prepares students for the more advanced study of energy and matter in high school.

High School: Ninth through Twelfth Grade

In high school, students encounter more nuanced perspectives, realizing that previous explanations only scratch the surface. They learn about open and closed systems. Furthermore, they learn to describe energy in terms of the flows into, out of, and within that system.

Moreover, they encounter exceptions such as nuclear processes. In this case, atoms aren’t conserved. Instead, total number of protons plus neutrons remains constant. This information provides a more comprehensive understanding of the dynamics of this concept.

Connections to Other CCCs and SEPs

There are several related Crosscutting Concepts and Science and Engineering Practices.

Crosscutting Concept Connections

Erin Sadler

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  • Noah Edelson May 3, 2022 at 9:33 am

    I am not a science educator, but rather a retired scientist – and though my background isn’t in physics per se, I would like o mention that there are quite a few interpretations of fundamental physics that are commonly used as a sort of ontology representing the dynamics of the very-small world. So for instance, you mention that energy is a property of matter- and that is correct within most models;
    Still, in many descriptions they use the term “force-carrier particles”
    In quantum field theory, a force carrier, also known as messenger particle or intermediate particle, is a type of particle that gives rise to forces between other particles. These particles serve as the quanta of a particular kind of physical field. . Each field has a complementary description as the set of particles of a particular type. A force between two particles can be described either as the action of a force field generated by one particle on the other, or in terms of the exchange of virtual force carrier particles between them. The energy of a wave in a field (for example, electromagnetic waves in the electromagnetic field) is quantized, and the quantum excitations of the field can be interpreted as particles. The Standard Model contains the following particles, each of which is an excitation of a particular field:
    *Gluons, excitations of the strong gauge field.
    *Photons, W bosons, and Z bosons, excitations of the electroweak gauge fields.
    *Higgs bosons, excitations of one component of the Higgs field, which gives mass to fundamental particles.
    *Gravity is not a part of the Standard Model, but it is thought that there may be particles called gravitons which are the excitations of gravitational waves.

    • Erin Sadler May 10, 2022 at 10:55 am

      Absolutely. For the purpose of what we are covering, my explanation works okay. (Though I have had a few kids ask questions that this model totally doesn’t answer!) I have had one kid particularly interested in particle physics in a middle school class. I assure you, your explanation is much more eloquent than mine. 😂

      Thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response. I will leave it here for anyone interested in a more detailed explanation (as opposed to my super simple one).

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