Snow Shelters and Long Underwear: Project-based Polar Learning

Through my years of teaching science to sixth graders, I have found that they gain a deeper understanding of a topic when I connect their learning to projects. The projects that my students like best and learn the most from occur during my polar regions unit.

During the unit, students spend a good deal of time focusing on insulation and how people and animals adapt to cold environments by using different forms of insulation. Two projects that engage students and help them understand the concept of insulation are “Snow Shelters” and “The World’s Best Long Underwear!”


Building Snow Shelters

To provide a realistic experience about insulation I have students build snow shelters. Winters in Vermont provide the perfect outdoor lab. Students are split into groups of five or six and brought to a large, relatively flat area near our school.

A flat area provides the perfect location for building snow shelters.

Students bring plastic shovels, gardening tools, and sleds from home to move and mold snow. Students are not told how to start but rather are encouraged to research different methods of building snow shelters.

The first day in our field, the groups shovel piles of snow and begin to carve out a door.

Students carve a door into their pile of snow.

The second day, students finish carving out the inside of their snow shelters, making sure the interior is large enough for each member of their group to fit inside.

A completed snow shelter.

The final step in the project is to record temperatures outside and inside the snow shelters. Ideally, we are outside on a day when the temperature dips to below zero. This really allows the students to see the value of the snow shelters as they add more people (and hence more body temperature) to their shelters.

On data collection sheets, students record the temperature outside the shelter and then inside at each point when a person is added. Using this data and Microsoft Excel, students create a bar graph, which shows the insulation value of a snow shelter.

This hands-on approach really helps students understand the idea of insulation as well as how people survive in the world’s coldest environments.


Long Underwear

Throughout the polar unit, I try to expose students to the methods that both humans and animals use to insulate themselves from extreme cold. As the culminating project for the unit, students are asked to create a business that would produce “The World’s Best Long Underwear!”

Another lab is called “Blubber Glove.” In this lab, students wrap one hand in a plastic bag filled with lard and then submerge their hand in ice water for about one minute to see the effects of blubber.

Finally, students participate in the “Human Fur” lab where they test the insulation value of various fabrics. Students choose from such materials as wool, cotton, capilene polyester, and others. They fill a film canister with near-boiling water and wrap the canister in the fabric they have chosen. They then repeat the procedure with other types of fabric. The last 30 minutes of class are spent recording temperature data to determine the heat loss.

Students use the information they gather from the Human Fur lab to start planning their long underwear project. Once they have determined which materials have good insulation values, they design their own test for wicking. Wicking is the ability of a material to pull moisture (often in the form of sweat) away from the body. Designing an experiment to test this is often difficult because students tend to design an experiment that tests for absorption. (Materials that absorb, or retain moisture that conducts heat away from the body, would not be beneficial in cold or polar regions.) Armed with both the insulation and wicking data, students determine what material or materials their long underwear should be made of.

Students then create a prototype, packaging, a brochure, and visuals, which not only explain why they chose the fabric but also “sell” their product. Usually students create a prototype that would fit a Barbie doll, but some have created life-sized prototypes as well.

Now that we are using more and more technology, students are creating web-based visuals and moving away from posters. Students use everything from web pages to Glogs (virtual posters) to videos to show off their insulation knowledge and aggressively sell their product. By completing this project, students gain a better insight into insulation properties in the world’s polar regions and do so while enjoying themselves.

I have found that the use of projects to help students understand science content makes their understanding deeper and more meaningful. Students become more engaged in my polar unit as we participate in projects, from building snow shelters to designing long underwear. Because of this engagement, students’ knowledge of insulation properties and their understanding of how to stay warm in the frigid temperatures of the world’s polar climates are enhanced.


National Science Education Standards

“Snow Shelters” and “The World’s Best Long Underwear” align with the following Science Content Standards of the National Science Education Standards:

5-8 Science as Inquiry

  • Design and conduct a scientific investigation
  • Use appropriate tools and techniques to gather, analyze, and interpret data
  • Use mathematics in all aspects of scientific inquiry

5-8 Physical Science

  • Transfer of energy

5-8 Science and Technology

  • Design a solution or product
  • Implement a proposed design
  • Evaluate completed technological designs or products
  • Communicate the process of technological design

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.


This article was written by Eric Biederbeck. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Eric 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 an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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