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Energy Skate Park: Basics

Interactive sim


Background and pedagogical theory

PhET sims ( are math and science computer simulations intended for use in learning environments from grade 5 (usually 9-10 year-olds in the north american public school system) to university level.

“PhET sims are based on extensive education research and engage students through an intuitive, game-like environment where students learn through exploration and discovery.” (

The sims are intended to be part of the delivery of STEM curriculum facilitated and designed by teachers. In support of this model PhET has a robust teacher component. Teachers can join and access scaffolds to help deliver the curriculum. Sims have teaching resources, including video primers, tips and downloadable in-class and home work activities designed by educators from educational institutions.

PhET Immediate interests are:
• Use of analogy to construct understanding
• Simulations as tools for changing classroom norms
• Specific features of sims that promote learning and engaged exploration
• Integrating simulations into homework


Analysing the visual and interactive makeup of the SIM “Energy Skate Park: Basics”


Requires basic understanding of kinetic and potential energy:

• kinetic energy is the energy of motion (energy an object has due to its motion)

• potential energy is dependent on position

Intro screen when sim is first opened (starting point)

Screen with data visualization supports checked and visible

Key ENERGY concepts (as seen in Energy Bar Graph):

Potential energy

In physics, potential energy is energy possessed by a body by virtue of its position relative to others, stresses within itself, electric charge, and other factors.[1][2](

Kinetic energy

The cars of a roller coaster reach their maximum kinetic energy when at the bottom of their path. When they start rising, the kinetic energy begins to be converted to gravitational potential energy. The sum of kinetic and potential energy in the system remains constant, ignoring losses to friction. (


internal energy (


Key concepts that affect interaction:

Speed: controlled by track structure and starting point of where skater is placed on track

Mass: effects thermal amount (is that work?) Total on bar chart begins with an amount and maintains that amount until the skater comes to a stop. The Thermal bar meets the (predicted?) Total

Other terms not represented on sim interface:

Conservation of energy (In physics, the law of conservation of energy states that the total energy of an isolated system remains constant—it is said to be conserved over time.[1] Energy can neither be created nor destroyed; rather, it transforms from one form to another. For instance, chemical energy can be converted to kinetic energy in the explosion of a stick of dynamite.

Work (energy transferred to a body by a force?)

Transfer of energy


Direction of motion (up and down; backward and forward)

Analogy used to facilitate understanding:

Skateboarder outside with the use of various tracks

Representation of a fully mobile upright person standing on a skateboard in foreground

Skateboard track in various shapes and inclines both stationary and interactive

Description of environment:

2d line drawing with flat colour fill

Blue sky, gradated

Three snow capped mountains, left, small to indicate background

Mid-tone brown ground perfectly flat from left to right of image

No midground representation

Integration of sim into learning activity

Learner expectations:













To understand how an educator may integrate the Skate Park sim into a classroom I’ve chosen the Activity “Energy Skate Park Basics Lesson” by UTeach Middle School PhET Team. This teacher-submitted activity is a gold-stared lab designed for middle school students. Gold stars are awarded by PhET to activities that are “high quality, inquiry based activities that follow the PhET design guidelines” ( The activity is comprised of 5 sections based on a 5E learning sequence: Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, Evaluate. For the purpose of this discovery the first two sections, Engage and Explore, will be used to help uncover how a student may explore and discover through the sim.  

Activity Objectives: Students will be able to

  1. Examine how an object’s potential and kinetic energy change as it moves and how an object’s total energy remains constant.

  2. Determine the variables that affect an object’s potential and kinetic energy.

  3. Propose modifications to the Energy Skate Park Basics PhET simulation.


This Activity targets grades 5-8 and group activity.

In module 2 (35 minutes) students are paired up and assigned to be driver or navigator and switch roles half way through the exercise.

Next steps: Session A

Execute section 1 and 2 of Activity with one student (sighted, 10 yr old, grade 5)

Execute section 1 (Engage) using hotwheels track and car with figure afixed

Did not do. User was well aware of concepts.

Execute section 2 (Explore) as per Activity questions below and Activity Sheet attached.

Executed Sunday March 26. Excluding activity sheet.

See transcription and observations here

Collect detailed notes of following:

  1. 5 minutes to explore the sim:

2) How does student explore the sim to discover answers to these questions:

How is your simulation similar/different from the real world?

What advantages does using the pie chart have?

What conclusions can you make about how speed influences kinetic energy?

If you were to design a skate park, what would you use? How would it look? Why?

If the total energy bar remains the same, what does that tell you about the total energy of an object?

How does mass affect the total energy of the skater?

3) How does student explore the sim to discover these questions:

How could you determine what kinetic and potential energy depend on using the simulation?

In the first tab, what does the simulation not consider?

How would friction affect the motion of the skater?

What observations can you make about the energy of the skater as he rolls up and down the ramp?  

What happens to the total energy bar?

What can you change in the simulation?

What evidence are you using to support your conclusions?

Activity sheet for module 2

Transcription and observations of audio video from Next steps A:

10 year old, grade 5 co-designer/explorer

User is using a trackpad integrated in keyboard on a laptop

Prompt: Can you start from scratch? [user had been exploring sim prior to start of observation session]

“I just got this” [user refers to track made in playground mode]

Prompt: Can you explain how you made that? [infinity symbol track]

“First I had a thought: is the infinity symbol just for numbers, if something went inside it would something go inside it and become an infinite energy source?

“So let’s see.

“I will be fixing this just to see.

“This may need a bit of tweaking.

“Needs to be a bit overtop.

(attempting to overlap end points of two track pieces)

“Oh I have an idea if i do this and then this.

(changes shape of track loop but skater continues to fall off track)

“In fact it isn’t [successful]. (referring to the unsuccessful exploration of skater on the infinity track)

“Let’s try the outside though. Maybe I need to make it stick.”

Prompt: How did you make it stick?

“Pressed button to make stick.”

(playground mode)

“I’m trying to make an infinite power source.

Looks pretty infinite to me until this part.

(part of one of the loops)

“Or, is it? It's’ actually just staying.

“Ok this is a bad thing.”

(abandons play)

Prompt: Go to basic one

What happens to the skater when you release them from the top vs when you release them half way up the ramp.

“It never goes up to the top on either side when released from the middle of the ramp.

“Goes to top when released from top.

“This is it’s centre of gravity.”

Prompt: What is its kinetic and what is its potential energy.

(User deploys skater and points to various points in the track to identify what is kinetic and what is potential)

(Plays with slow motion and normal motion buttons)

Prompt: What’s similar to the real world?

“Person on a skateboard wearing a shirt and stuff and on something—skateboard—not flying.”

And non similar:

“This will never happen (references the continual back and forth of the skater on the u shaped ramp) you will slowly get to just here (references the bottom of the u shaped track). She will not stop [on the sim].

Also: buttons that you can choose to have her teleport back to a spot

There wouldn’t be a red dot — centre of gravity. It’s where I point my mouse.”

[moves to w shaped track:] “I wish I could have fun but it won’t let me. There is another mode, this [brings up playground] which I love. I love doing this (shows skater jumping off track end).”

(Attempts to build the w shaped track)

Prompt: Did you like building your own

“Yes, and I wish it would let me make it jump”

Energy bar

Pie chart

User chanted and created an audio rhythm of the words kinetic potential kinetic potential kinetic potential while pointing up and down. Was clear user was using both bar and pie chart to observe changes and connection to skater movements/positions.

Prompt: What advantages does using the pie chart have?

“Well it shows it in a much simpler form although it isn’t simple to understand. Instead of having this, this and this (pointing to bars in energy bar chart: kinetic, potential, thermal). It's just a circle

They're all really good but I’m not sure what this is, the grid. So i can do without it.”

Prompt: Did you know about energy before this session?


[learned in grade 5]

Prompt: Did you use a simulation like this?

“No, no games, just math. We did something on it.

I don’t remember.”

User Refers to Bar graph

“It’s all about math.”

[User talks through how total energy bar is the sum of kinetic and thermal energy in their example.]

“That kinetic energy is not as high as the total energy. Because of that thermal energy. If I added that to that it would make it even. [add kinetic bar to thermal bar would equal the total bar]”


“More mass means more speed.

Less weight less speed.”

(Plays with slider bar to test out theory)


(User measures speed by counting aloud the seconds the skater is on one way track; with both smallest mass setting and largest mass setting.)

“weight/mass is visual. Big person, small person.”

Prompt: What do you change on the simulation to try and find your answers

“Testing it out as I make my answers

Playground to show: If you were to ask me a question. What does friction do to something?

Chooses no friction and then max friction.

States: Must know extremes to understand everything in between.

User is adjusting track, size of skater to adjust Energy bar charts. Observations through discussion. Oral discussion of observation is very important to this user.

Thermal understanding was referred to a car and acceleration. Something the user knows about.

Observations of the sim as a whole by the user:

“Jumps and stuff to make tricks. Main goal at a skate park is to have fun.

Park means fun. If it was a skate board floor then it’s not fun.

This is not real life. Basically a game.

You can learn stuff about energy but not about real life things.”

Workshop Planning: Questions

Identifying 2 key areas:

  1. Can we learn what scaffolds are needed through physical play?

  2. If given an approximate model, can we identify supports needed to facilitate free-form track construction for a wide spectrum of users? [do we need to include different options to create a “marble run”?

  • A) lego model (2D, right angles, narrow field of construction choices, handheld, individual);

  • B) marble run (3D, curved, narrow field of construction choices, table top, individual and partner support);

  • C) hot wheels (real world symbolic, partner support);

  • D) toilet paper rolls, tape, scissors, wall (maker, some partner support, soft/malleable potentially leading to unique choices)]

  • Add predefined track pieces which can be put together. [have prebuilt options also available for participants?]

  • Or the ability to start from an existing track and you can change it. [have a fully prebuilt functioning track for participants to rework?]

  • What kind of feedback does physical play provide that is useful for users [digital users]?

  • i.e. is the tactile and sound key signals?

  • Are there things about physical play that is limiting that could be implemented in digital forms? I.e. being able to play / pause / adjust? [explore during co-design of computer game]

  • Are there things about physical play that naturally supports the need for a partner? i.e.: simultaneous adjustments during creation of track

  • Are the sounds created by physical play enough to orient a non-sighted user? (i.e. is sonification enough?)

What is the core play loop?

  • The core play loop = ability to easily adjust, tweak, and see consequences?

  • what kind of controls and feedback does the sim need to provide in order to keep it fun?

  • "fun" is subjective

  • people play in different ways. How is this accommodated?

Designing a computer game from physical track play

Outline of co-design session to inform a formalized hackathon workshop


Hotwheels track

Hotwheels cars

Small bucket (large enough to hold a dinky car)


Audio visual recording via iPhone on stand for visual snaps (unidentified only) and impromptu outloud thinking or conversation.

Collaborative options: White board or chalk board for note taking or visualization of computer game discussion; paper and markers/crayons/etc.


10-year old


Discovery and Play:

Create a track for the car to jump and land in the bucket.

[potential process: multiple iterations to find desired solution]

Once solution is accomplished by the codesigner (this needs to be self identified by the codesigner) the following questions can guide computer game design session:


What if “this” was a video game?

What does it look like?

How do you play it?

Questions to prompt diverse thinking:

What if you were using an xbox controller, wiiU wand instead of a mouse or trackpad?

Imagine that the  screen suddenly goes black but you need to continue the game. How might the game work?

Do you think sound would be helpful? If so, what might that be?

Session B: observations

Computer game design of physical play. Same participant as session A:

  1. A free play/web game, sandbox. Level up, win races, get more track. Unlock special ones, secret tracks, upgrade car.

  2. No sound: word warnings. Shown on top or bottom. Choice of where.

  3. Sound guidance. Unlock the sound guidance by playing game a certain amount of time. Which would monitor your actions. Guidance mode will tell you what to do. Tap and it will appear.

  4. Sounds symbolize an action


How to Make a Marble Run with Kids

With simple, household supplies like paper rolls and tape, I'll show you how to make a marble run with kids as we think like engineers.

Marble Run Supplies

To keep this simple (I like simple), this is all you will need:

  • Cardboard rolls

  • Painter’s Tape

  • Marble/s or small rolling objects

  • Scissors

  • Bowl or basket

Decorate your Marble Run rolls (optional)

With simple, household supplies like paper rolls and tape, I'll show you how to make a marble run with kids as we think like engineers.

Find some clear wall space

Set your marble run up on an empty wall, large window, or sliding glass door.

We found some wall space, taped the highest tube to a spot that N could easily reach, and kept on taping rolls until we had something we were happy with.

Make a Marble Run

If you want to make a marble run work, it’s  best to test it as you go. Marbles move fast and like to fly right out of the tubes if they’re not positioned to catch speedy marbles. We tested the sections of our DIY marble run a few times to work out the angles and distances. This is a fabulous math and physical science lesson!

Watch the magic happen

Once we got it to a place that seemed to work, N dropped in her marble and stood back to watch the magic happen.

Add a basket to catch your marbles

We needed something to catch the balls (and jellybeans!), and a strawberry basket was just right for the job.


  • Try rolling other objects down the chute. How do they compare to the marbles?

  • Make chutes out of other objects such as cut-up  + folded cardboard boxes or folded paper. What material/s make for the best chutes?

  • Build a marble run inside a large cardboard box.

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