Lessons and Activities about Heat and Insulation

In the elementary grades, students begin to explore the concepts of energy and heat. They learn that the sun is the primary source of warmth and that heat can be produced by activity and machines. They also learn that heat can be transferred from one object to another and that some materials can keep objects hot or cold. Students learn to use thermometers to measure temperature, but they should not be expected to understand the difference between heat and temperature. The focus of activity and instruction during these early years should be on making observations and developing informal understandings, not on formal definitions or in-depth explanations.

Elementary students tend to have many misconceptions about heat. While hands-on activity and continued discussion may be used, teachers should know that many of these misconceptions are persistent and even developmentally appropriate. With the proper experiences and informal exploration in elementary school, students will be prepared to tackle these misconceptions in later years.

In this article, we’ve highlighted lessons that help students answer the following questions: How is heat produced and measured? How can we “trap” heat? How do animals and people stay warm in the polar regions? Teachers may wish to combine lessons from each category to produce an effective learning cycle within a real-world context. Within each section, literacy lessons provide suggestions for incorporating reading, writing, and discussion into the science activity.

We’ve aligned each lesson to the appropriate national standards – National Science Education Standards and the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)/International Reading Association (IRA) Standards for the English Language Arts. The entire National Science Education Standards document can be read online or downloaded for free from the National Academies Press web site. The content standards are found in Chapter 6. The NCTE/IRA Standards may be viewed online as well.


HEAT

These lessons help students develop a basic understanding of heat and how heat is produced. Teachers may wish to further develop a study of heat by exploring how different surfaces and colors reflect and absorb light. For lessons and activities about albedo, please see “Hands-on Science and Literacy Activities about Solar Energy” in the October 2008 issue of Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears.

The Warmth of the Sun (Grades K-2)
To help students broaden their understanding of the sun, particularly its critical role in warming the land, air, and water around us. This lesson meets the Science as Inquiry and Earth and Space Science content standards of the National Science Education Standards for grades K-4.

When Things Start Heating Up (Grades 3-5)
This lesson is intended to give students a general idea of how heat is produced from human-based activities and mechanical and electrical machines. This lesson can be adapted to include other examples of heat-producing activities, such as those found in the lesson Heating Up. This lesson meets the Science as Inquiry and Physical Science content standards of the National Science Education Standards for grades K-4.

Is It Hot in the Light? (Grades 3-5)
In this activity, students will make observations that things in direct sunlight are warmer than things that are not in as much sunlight. Also, they may notice that there may be more heat near asphalt, brick, or cement because heat can be stored and radiated from these, also. This lesson meets the Science as Inquiry and Earth and Space Science content standards of the National Science Education Standards for grades K-4 and 5-8.

Integrate literacy into these lessons with the following:

I Wonder: Writing Scientific Explanations With Students (Grades K-2; modify for Grades 3-5)
This lesson encourages second-grade students to ask questions about a specific topic, choose a particular question to explore in detail, and research the question using a variety of resources. Students organize their information on a “What we think we know,” “What we have confirmed we know,” and “New facts we have learned through research” (TCF) chart. They then collaborate to write a scientific explanation. Teachers could easily modify this lesson to focus on heat. This lesson meets the following NCTE/IRA Standards: 1, 3, 5, 7, 8, 12.


INSULATION

In these lessons, upper-elementary students investigate the properties of insulators by testing a variety of materials. Teachers may choose to modify these lessons to include other materials or create an inquiry experience for students by allowing them to select materials and plan their own testing procedure.

Teach Engineering: What is the Best Insulator? (Grades 3-5)
In this lesson, students will investigate the properties of insulators in attempts to keep a cup of water from freezing, and once it is frozen, to keep it from melting. This lesson involves qualitative observations of which cups freeze (or melt) first. This lesson meets the Science as Inquiry and Physical Science Content Standards of the National Science Education Standards for Grades K-4.

Insulation Experimentation (Grade 5 and up)
In this lesson, students test a variety of insulators and relate their knowledge to energy conservation. Experimental design is involved, but the lesson is written in such a way that allows students to design their own investigation.
This lesson meets the Science as Inquiry and Physical Science Content Standards of the National Science Education Standards for Grades 5-8.

Integrate literacy into these lessons by having students plan investigations, record data, link claims to evidence, and draw conclusions in a science notebook.

Science Notebooks: Integrating Investigations
This article from the August 2008 issue of Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears provides an overview of science notebooks and how they can be used in the elementary classroom. Using science notebooks meets the following NCTE/IRA Standards: 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12.


KEEPING WARM

In these lessons, students explore how animals and people can stay warm in cold environments. Teachers may choose to tie these lessons to those addressing insulation by testing fur or cloth in the lessons described above.

Animal Coverings (Grade K)
Discuss the different kinds of animal coverings and how each covering protects the animal or keeps it warm. This lesson meets the Life Science Content Standard of the National Science Education Standards for grades K-4.

Dressing for the Season (Grade K)
For each change of season, students will observe the weather and then dress a cut-out doll appropriately for a field trip outside. This lesson meets the Life Science Content Standard of the National Science Education Standards for grades K-4.

How Animals Prepare for Winter (Grades 1-2)
This lesson teaches students that some animals migrate and others hibernate during the winter months. This lesson meets the Life Science Content Standard of the National Science Education Standards for grades K-4.

Polar Bears: Keeping Warm at the Arctic (Grades K-2)
Students learn about the polar bear’s body coverings and how the coverings help the bear survive in the Arctic climate. This lesson can be generalized to apply to other marine mammals such as whales and seals. This lesson meets the Science as Inquiry and Life Science Content Standards of the National Science Education Standards for grades K-4.

Dress Like a Polar Bear (Grades K-2 and 3-5)
Students discuss the polar bear’s adaptations to an arctic climate, then apply what they’ve learned as they design a winter outfit for themselves. The activity includes modifications for both grade ranges. This lesson meets the Life Science Content Standard of the National Science Education Standards for grades K-4.

Polar Bears and Their Adaptations (Grades 3-5)
Students explore how a polar bear’s body adapts to survive in the harsh environment in which the bear lives. This lesson can be generalized to apply to other marine mammals such as whales and seals. This lesson meets the Science as Inquiry and Life Science Content Standards of the National Science Education Standards for grades K-4 and 5-8.

Staying Warm in Antarctica (Grades 3-5)
Students will explore the three different types of heat transfer and gain a better understanding of how this transfer affects both scientists and animals that inhabit polar regions. This lesson meets the Science as Inquiry, Physical Science, and Life Science Content Standards of the National Science Education Standards for grades K-4 and 5-8.

Integrate literacy into these lessons by pairing them with the following article and lesson:

Creating Question and Answer Books through Guided Research (Grades K-2; modify for Grades 3-5)
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.

Life in a Deep Freeze (Grades 3-5)
This article from the children’s magazine National Geographic Explorer describes the various adaptations that keep animals warm in the cold Arctic environment.


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

Copyright December 2009 – 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 anĀ Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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