Sound Energy Unit – Grade 4

Sep 13, 2023

Students learn how people make/detect sounds and the matter-energy story to explain how a singer shattered a glass. They identify noise problems in their community and design solutions to present to stakeholders. Students gather evidence to explain how a singer can shatter a glass with his voice, coordinating ideas about vibrations, pitch, volume, and energy to understand how sound travels and how people produce and detect sounds. They identify ‘Noisy Place’ problems in their school community and design/test prototypes of solutions to address the problems. Students apply what they learn to understand related phenomena relevant to their lives better (e.g., loud airplanes, how instruments work, or hearing loud sounds through walls).


Grade 4 Sound Trajectory Student Learning. Unit order: introduce phenomenon and elicit ideas, human systems, decibels at a distance, seeing sound waves, update and revise models, matter and energy: knock knock!, insulation: stop that sound!, press for evidence-based explanations. Science Lesson Sequence: 1. Introduce phenomenon, Elicit Students' Ideas & Experiences (2 days) 2. Human Systems: Sending and Receiving Sounds (3 days) 3. Decibels at a Distance (3 days) 4. Seeing Sound Waves: Amplitude and Wavelength (2 days) 5. Knock, Knock: Sound moves through matter (molecules) (2 days) 6. Update models: Add, change, questions (1 day) 7. Stop that Sound! (2 days) 8. Optional: Finding the right pitch (resonance) (1 day) 9. Optional: How is sound different than wind? (more on molecules) (1 day) 10. Update models and develop final explanations using evidence (2-3 days) Engineering Design: Noisy Places: A. Brainstorm & data collection (3 days) B. Design a solution, build and test prototype (4 days) C. Proposing solutions to your school community (4+ days) The engineering project is embedded at intentional places. Use your professional discretion about the pacing and sequence of what makes the most sense for your students' sensemaking. The current placement falls just after the science lesson that gives students some useful conceptual information to inform their design process.

Alternative phenomena. There have been many iterations of this unit to help connect to students’ lives and what matters to them. We began by focusing on a singer who could shatter glass, then noticed how students were thinking about sound and noise in their own living and learning environments, and revised the unit to attend to noisy places in schools. There is an additional unit adaptation that intersects with noise pollution for orca whales. 4th Grade_ Orca Sound Whole Unit. NOTE this is not a complete unit, just elicitation and example activities & 4th Orca Sound Pollution Model Scaffold and Orca Sound Pollution.MultilingualScaffold.3-5Model.


What the curriculum does well…

  • Supporting Student Sensemaking. The curriculum includes opportunities for surfacing and supporting students’ sensemaking over time through discussions and modeling-to-explain their personal experiences with noise and sound and their shared experiences (investigations, readings, videos, discussions) as a classroom learning community. Look for these icons in the curriculum:
    • Model to explain
    • Share and discuss
    • Partner talk
  • Culture, Families & Communities as Rightfully Belonging. Students have the opportunity to identify, define, design, prototype, and test solutions for a noise problem that affects them and/or others in their school community.

Justice-centered considerations… 

  • Musical instruments are not included in this sound unit; however, this may be a relevant avenue to explore with students as many students may play instruments. See the first-grade sound curriculum resource for examples. 
  • Students often bring up related experiences with sound, music, and noise during this unit, which are rich for productive conversations or modeling opportunities (and/or could turn into bigger advocacy projects). For example, airplane noise from flying overhead, sounds of sirens or honking outside, how elephants communicate feeling vibrations in the ground, etc., and many other references they share from things they’ve seen, read about, or experienced. Feel free to adjust or add additional lessons based on students’ experiences and interests related to sound.
  • Ableism & Sound sensitivity. There are some brief readings/texts about hearing damage and people who are deaf and hard of hearing. This can be elevated to become a more significant thread in the unit if students are interested in learning more.
  • Sound pollution for humans. Studying sound pollution can be tricky for students living in such conditions. Rather than carrying on victim narratives, we have found it important to find examples of community-based solutions. Joining these efforts is empowering for students. 
  • Sound pollution for more-than-human species. This unit can be connected to ecological caring and nature-culture relations. We have taught the unit with a focus on sound pollution for resident orca whales, including connections to local indigenous knowledge of living in relation to whales. 

These critiques are starting places. Please feel free to change the student tools within this file and add or change activities based on the ideas your students bring up in class, and please critique our critiques!


Place-based engineering design & making learning matter: Students identified and investigated Noisy Place problems at their school. They defined the problem specifically by collecting data with their team at various times of day from that place using a decibel meter and making observational notes. Then, with their team, they decided on ways to reduce the noise with a built solution using what they’ve learned about how sound travels. They designed and tested a prototype in a shoebox physical model of the space. Here are some examples of students sharing their final reports of their Noisy Place project with their families via video: Student A (1:02), Student B (2:19), and Student C (1:26). Many students were concerned with the health of supervising staff members in the lunchroom and at recess. Students recognized they were at lunch or outside for a shorter time but supervising staff members often have supervision duties for an hour or longer at that noise level. Students were concerned because they knew those decibel levels could cause hearing loss after so much time so they asked if we had extra earplugs from a prior investigation to offer to staff. Students knew they didn’t want the lunchroom or playground to be quiet places, as they enjoy chatting with friends; however, they recognized the safety concerns for damaging their hearing as well as disturbing nearby classrooms.

An example of a noisy places engineering design. First students identified places around the school with noise issues. Places included the gym, stairwells. bus line/covered area outside. As a class, this teacher had students think together about the lunchroom sound to outline some reasons for this problem and how they could investigate the problem further by collecting data. Next students were pressed to justify some of their design decisions and/or materials they wanted to test to see if it would help solve the noisy place issue. This student here was writing about how foam helps change and reduce the sounds by reducing echoes. Third, students worked in teams to negotiate and compromise on a design to build a shoebox prototype to model the physical space with and without their designed solution. A simple circuit with buzzer mimicked the noise in that space and students tested designs to see how much the noise was reduced by their design. Then students discussed how well they think that design would work in the real world space.

Teacher Educators & Professional Learning

Design considerations


  • This unit builds on NGSS standards from the 1st grade.
  • To introduce the phenomenon to teachers and AST, use this PowerPoint deck:  AST intro with Sound Grade 4 – 3 hour introduction.  
  • Also, consider having teachers or pre-service teachers review student work using a noticing tool such as the Funds of Knowledge or RSST tool. Also, consider scaffolding a conversation with teachers about grading versus sensemaking. 



Equity Questions for Teacher Reflection 

  1. If students cannot draw out their ideas about sound, how might you support them in explaining in words what they think is happening?
  2. Are there any local or more relevant examples of sound waves interacting with objects that you can use to replace a singer breaking glass?
  3. During this unit, how will you develop a class culture that encourages students to offer their own ideas, examples, and explanations related to the unit?
  4. Over the course of a unit, many ideas and aspects of sound and energy will be explored. How might teachers support students in tracking, organizing, sharing, and co-authoring their understanding of the concepts? 

Research and NGSS

Research article on how elementary students learn about sound. Veith, S.I. What’s the Matter with Sound? – How Primary School Students Perceive the Nature of Sound. Res Sci Educ 53, 919–934 (2023).


  • 4-PS3-2. Make observations to provide evidence that energy can be transferred from place to place by sound.
    [Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include quantitative measurements of energy.]
  • 4-PS4-1. Develop a model of waves to describe patterns in terms of amplitude and wavelength and that waves can cause objects to move.
    [Clarification Statement: Examples of models could include diagrams, analogies, and physical models using wire to illustrate wavelength and amplitude of waves.] [Assessment
    Boundary: Assessment does not include interference effects, electromagnetic waves, non-periodic waves, or quantitative models of amplitude and wavelength.]
  • 4-PS4-3. Generate and compare multiple solutions that use patterns to transfer information.* [Clarification Statement: Examples of solutions could include
    drums sending coded information through sound waves, using a grid of 1’s and 0’s representing black and white to send information about a picture, and using Morse code to send text.]
  • 3-5-ETS1-3. Plan and carry out fair tests in which variables are controlled and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model
    or prototype that can be improved.

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