How to Teach Conduction of Heat, or Thermal Energy

Figuring out how to teach conduction of heat? Start with hands-on experiments. Then discuss characteristics. In this form of energy transfer, objects must touch.

As you consider how to teach conduction of heat (AKA thermal energy), begin with simple hands-on exploration.

Ms. Sneed Considers How to Teach Conduction of Heat

Our favorite fourth grade teacher sat at the side table with her teaching partner. “To continue our thermal energy unit, let’s talk about how to teach conduction,” she said.

Mr. Frank nodded. Then he opened his laptop and clicked around. Finally, he found the heat materials.

“Once again, an inquiry approach that requires kids to make generalizations.” He turned his screen so she could see.

Ms. Sneed’s face lit up. Just the kind of science stuff she loved. “Let’s use this same approach when we plan to teach convection,” she said.

“And radiation too!” Mr. Frank added. “That way, our kids will be engaged for all three forms of heat energy.”

Ms. Sneed Teaches Conduction of Thermal Energy

The following morning, Ms. Sneed gathered some materials. First, she set some bowls and metal spoons on the table. Second, in the corner of the room, she set up an ironing board. On it, she set an iron. Then she headed to the teachers’ lounge to microwave a pitcher of water.

When she returned, her students began to file in. “What’s all this?” they wondered.

Conduction of Heat Activity 1

Once she had taken attendance and lunch count, Ms. Sneed began the lesson. “Today,” she said, “you’re going to learn about conduction of heat. For the beginning of the lesson, you’ll be working in your science lab groups.”

The class cheered. After all, group work was their favorite.

When they had organized themselves, Ms. Sneed handed out their lab sheets. Then she gave each group a bowl and a metal spoon.

“Now,” she said, “place the spoon in the bowl. Then touch the handle. Record how it feels on your lab sheet. Specifically, how warm is the spoon?”

Wondering how to teach conduction of thermal energy? Begin with a metal spoon in a bowl. Ask kids to touch the handle of the spoon. Then pour hot water in the bowl. In a few minutes, they will feel that heat has been conducted from the hot water to the handle.
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As Ms. Sneed circulated, she noticed the responses on their lab sheets. Some students wrote “70 degrees.” Others put “room temperature” or “normal.”

When they were finished, their teacher continued. “Now I will pour hot water in the bowl. Remember, it’s hot. So no touching!”

Fortunately, all students kept their hands away from the bowls. However, they looked and commented on the steam. Some even predicted what might happen next.

Finally, after waiting several minutes, Ms. Sneed gave them the go-ahead. “Now touch the handle of the spoon again.”

As her class ooo-ed and ahh-ed, a small smile spread across the teacher’s face.

“Next, fill in the next two responses on your sheet.”

Again circulating, she took note of the answers. Yep, her kids observed that the spoon handle became warmer. Additionally, they realized that heat from the water traveled up the spoon.

Conduction of Heat Activity 2

Next, Ms. Sneed moved to the corner of the room and turned on the iron. Then she grabbed a colorful towel.

“Let’s explore one more example of conduction of heat,” she said. “As I walk past your desk, touch this towel. Again, consider its relative temperature.”

As she walked around, some kids commented: “Yep, room temperature again.”

“Now I’ll press the towel with the iron. Again, remember that it’s hot. You can form a line and touch the towel when I say so.”

Without further ado, the kids lined up. Soon, Ms. Sneed was touching the iron to the towel, waiting a few seconds, and then letting a few students touch the towel.

“After you’ve touched the towel, record your observations.”

For the second conduction activity, kids notice that an iron conducts heat to a towel.

Defining Conduction of Thermal Energy

Once the kids had recorded their observations, Ms. Sneed said, “Now look at the bottom of the page. Think back to when you held the ice cube in yesterday’s lab. Then consider when you held the glass of warm water. How are these examples of conduction?”

A boy in the back replied, “Heat traveled from one object to another.”

Ms. Sneed nodded. “And how were they positioned?”

“They were touching,” came a chorus of voices.

“Exactly.” Their teacher smiled. “So what is conduction?”

A girl at the side of the room piped up. “It’s when heat travels from one touching object to another.”

“Great!” Ms. Sneed picked up a marker. “If we use common science language, we can say…” She continued speaking as she wrote:

Conduction of heat occurs when thermal energy transfers from one object to a touching object.

Conduction of heat requires objects to touch. For example, when ice cubes touch your hands, heat travels from your hands to the ice cubes.

Soon the kids were writing the definition on their papers.

Enjoy Teaching

Their teacher, standing to the side, sighed gently. Yes, this was what made her enjoy teaching. First, dive into hands-on exploration. Second, discuss. And third, come to consensus. Of course, great materials always helped her achieve this.

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