Showing complex energy transfers using bar models

Real life energy transfers can be messy. That is to say, they are complicated and difficult to understand. I think many students get lost in the dense forest of verbiage that has to be deployed to describe their detail and nuance. Bar models are, I think, an effective teaching tool to avoid cognitive overload, especially for GCSE Physics and Combined Science students.

Windmills of our minds

As an example, let’s consider a wind turbine used to generate electricity. As a starting point, let’s think about how much of the kinetic energy ‘harvested’ by the blades is transferred to the generator. The answer is, of course. not as much as we would hope. The majority is, hopefully, but a significant proportion is unavoidably lost via work done by friction to the thermal energy store of the gears.

This can be shown in a visually impactful way using the Bar Model approach:

Note that in this style of energy transfer diagram, the Principle of Conservation of Energy is communicated visually via the width of the bars. The bottom ‘End’ bar has to be exactly the same width as the top ‘Start’ bar.

What happens if a helpful maintenance engineer tops up the oil reservoir of the wind turbine? Well, we have a much happier situation, as shown below.

As we can see, a much greater proportion of the total energy is transferred usefully (and can be used to generate electrical power) in a well-maintained wind turbine.

Using energy efficient appliances in the home

How can we explain the advantages of using more efficient appliances in the home?

A diagram like this can help. The household that uses less efficient appliances has to buy more energy from their energy supplier to achieve exactly the same outcomes as the first. This is both more costly for the household as well as demanding that more resources are needed to generate electricity for no good reason.

Parachute vs. no parachute

Exactly the same amount of energy is transferred from the gravitational energy store of a parachutist whether their parachute deploys successfully or not. However, in the case of a successful deployment, much more energy is transferred into the thermal energy store of the surroundings than into their kinetic energy store. This helps ensure a safe landing!

Teaching Magnification Using the Singapore Bar Model

He was particularly indignant against the almost universal use of the word idea in the sense of notion or opinion, when it is clear that idea can only signify something of which an image can be formed in the mind. We may have an idea or image of a mountain, a tree, a building; but we cannot surely have an idea or image of an argument or proposition.

— Boswell’s Life of Johnson

The Singapore Bar Model is a neat bit of maths pedagogy that has great potential in Science education. Ben Rogers wrote an excellent post about it here. Contrary to Samuel Johnson’s view, the Bar Model does attempt to present an argument or proposition as an image; and in my opinion, does so in a way that really advances students’ understanding.


The Bar Model was developed in Singapore in the 1980s and is the middle step in the intensely-focused concrete-pictorial-abstract progression model that many hold instrumental in catapulting Singapore to the top of the TIMSS and PISA mathematical rankings.

Essentially, the Bar Model attempts to use pictorial representations as a stepping-stone between concrete and abstract mathematical reasoning. The aim is that the cognitive processes encouraged by the pictorial Bar Models are congruent with (or at least, have some similarities to) the cognitive processes needed when students move on to abstract mathematical reasoning.

Applying the Bar Model to a GCSE lesson on Magnification

I was using the standard I-AM formula triangle with some GCSE students who were, frankly, struggling.

Image from

Although most science teachers use formula triangles, they are increasingly recognised as being problematic. Formula triangles are a cognitive dead end because they are a replacement for algebra, rather than a stepping stone that models more advanced algebraic manipulations.

Having recently read about the Bar Model, I decided to try to present the magnification problem pictorially.

“The actual size is 0.1 mm and the image size is 0.5 mm. What is the magnification?” was shown as:

Screen Shot 2018-03-18 at 11.35.05

From this diagram, students were able to state that the magnification was x 5 without using the formula triangle (and without recourse to a calculator!)

Screen Shot 2018-03-18 at 11.41.43.png
Magnification question.

The above question was presented as:

Screen Shot 2018-03-18 at 12.02.57


Note that the 1:1 correspondence between the number of boxes and the amount of magnification no longer applies. However, students were still able to intuitively grasp that 100/0.008 would give the magnification of x12500 — although they did need a calculator for this one. (Confession: so did I!)

More impressively, questions such as “The actual length of a cell structure is 3 micrometres. The magnification is 1500. Calculate the image size” could be answered correctly when presented in the Bar Model format like this:

Screen Shot 2018-03-18 at 12.22.21

Students could correctly calculate the image size as 4500 micrometres without recourse to the dreaded I-AM formula triangle. Sadly however, the conversion of micrometres to millimetres still defeated them.

But this led me to think: could the Bar Model be adapted to aid students in unit conversion? I’m sure it could, but I haven’t thought that one through yet…

However, I hope other teachers apply the Bar Model to magnification problems and let me know if it does help students as much as I think it does.