Hands-on Science and Literacy Activities about Solar Energy

Covered by ice, water, and land and subject to seasonal extremes in solar radiation, the polar regions are an ideal context for introducing concepts of solar energy and albedo. Of course, these concepts will be covered in greater depth in upper elementary than in the primary grades. We’ve highlighted primary lessons that focus on understanding the sun’s energy, using a thermometer, and discovering the idea that dark colors absorb more energy. Students in upper elementary test various substances and soil types and begin to make the connection to the difference in albedo between ice, water, and land.

You may wish to connect these activities to a study of seasons in the polar regions. Our article “Investigating the Cause and Effect Relationships of Seasonal Change” highlights lessons and activities for introducing seasonal concepts to your students. The Virtual Bookshelf from that same issue recommends children’s literature on the topic.

Literacy connections to these lessons and activities include making question-and-answer books to present the information gained from hands-on exploration and research. As always, our Virtual Bookshelf and Feature Story provide high-quality, nonfiction children’s literature to supplement the hands-on activities.

For each science lesson, we’ve included the appropriate National Science Education Standards. You can read the entire National Science Education Standards online for free or register to download the free PDF. The content standards are found in Chapter 6.


GRADES K-2

These lessons meet the National Science Education Standards: Science as Inquiry Content Standard, Physical Science Content Standard, and Earth and Space Science Content Standard.

The Warmth of the Sun (Grades K-2)
This introductory lesson helps students understand the sun’s role in heating and warming earth’s air, land, and water. Through indoor and outdoor activities, students will make qualitative approximations of heat and will gain a basic understanding of the concepts surrounding the sun’s heat energy.

Our Super Star (Grades K-5)
A multiday lesson plan about the sun. Part III, in which students create solar ovens to cook s’mores, is most relevant to our topic, solar energy. A related resource is the Cooking Cookies with Solar Power QuickTime video, which tests two homemade solar cookers.

Light Absorption (Grades K-2 with modifications)
Students investigate how color affects absorption and temperature when objects are placed in pockets of black and white construction paper. While the plan is designed for students in grades 5-9, teachers can use the basic activity with a whole class in the primary grades.

To integrate literacy skills into these lessons, try the following:

Creating Question and Answer Books through Guided Research (Grades K-2)
As students investigate a topic (the sun and its energy), they use nonfiction texts and the Internet to generate questions and gather information. Students use KWL charts and interactive writing to organize their information. Periodic reviews of gathered information become the backdrop to ongoing inquiry, discussion, reporting, and confirming information. The lesson culminates with the publishing of a collaborative question-and-answer book, which reports on information about the chosen topic, with each student contributing one page to the book. This lesson meets the following NCTE/IRA Standards: 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 11, 12.


Grades 3-5

These lessons meet the National Science Education Standards: Science as Inquiry Content Standard for grades K-4 and 5-8, Physical Science Content Standard for grades K-4 and 5-8, and Earth and Space Science Content Standard for grades K-4 and 5-8.

Our Super Star (Grades K-5)

A multiday lesson plan about the sun. Part III, in which students create solar ovens to cook s’mores, is most relevant to our topic, solar energy. A related resource is the Cooking Cookies with Solar Power QuickTime video, which tests two homemade solar cookers.

Investigating Radiation (Grades 3-5)
In this lesson, students investigate how different surfaces absorb heat. The lesson is designed for grades 5-9, but the experimental set-up can easily be used with upper-elementary students. Needed modifications may include holding a class discussion instead of having students answer the questions independently and in writing. The lesson also provides the opportunity for students to design and test their own materials.

The Albedo Effect & the Warming of the Arctic (Grades 4-5)
Students will explain how color affects the ability of a material to reflect light and absorb heat. They will explain how less sea ice (and more dark ocean water) in the Arctic could raise Arctic and global temperatures.

To integrate literacy skills into these lessons, try the following:

Exploring Cause and Effect Using Expository Texts About Natural Disasters (Grades 3-5)
This lesson helps third- through fifth-grade students explore the nature and structure of expository texts focusing on cause and effect. Students begin by activating prior knowledge about cause and effect; the teacher then models discovering these relationships in a text and recording the findings in a graphic organizer. Students work in small groups to apply what they learned using related books and then write paragraphs outlining the cause-and-effect relationships they have found. Substitute texts about solar energy or sea ice instead of natural disasters. This lesson meets the following NCTE/IRA Standards: 1, 3, 5, 6, 11, 12.

Creating Question and Answer Books through Guided Research (Grades 3-5 with modifications)
As students investigate a topic (the sun and its energy), they use nonfiction texts and the Internet to generate questions and gather information. Students use KWL charts and interactive writing to organize their information. Periodic reviews of gathered information become the backdrop to ongoing inquiry, discussion, reporting, and confirming information. The lesson culminates with the publishing of a collaborative question-and-answer book, which reports on information about the chosen topic, with each student contributing one page to the book. While this lesson appears in ReadWriteThink’s K-2 grade band, it can be easily modified for use with upper- elementary students. This lesson meets the following NCTE/IRA Standards: 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 11, 12.


This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Jessica at beyondpenguins@msteacher.org.

Copyright October 2008 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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