Heat activities help kids conceptualize thermal energy. With a few everyday objects, you can help your students understand conduction, convection, radiation, and more!
Ms. Sneed Finds Some Thermal Energy Activities
Our favorite fourth grade teacher sighed deeply. “Other physical science activities were relatively easy. How can we teach heat in the classroom?” she asked her teammate, Mr. Frank.
“I know. We can’t use a blowtorch!”
The pair sat down by the computer and began searching. After typing in “heat activities,” they found what they were looking for. “Hey look! This thermal energy unit has eight simple labs that use everyday materials,” exclaimed Mr. Frank.
“And no blowtorch is needed,” grinned Ms. Sneed.
Heat Activities in the Classroom
The following Monday, Ms. Sneed set up her first heat lab. In the teacher’s lounge, she prepared three pitchers of water: hot, warm, and cold. Then she placed them on a tray and walked carefully back to her classroom. Next, she organized clear plastic cups into three sets and poured the water. Finally, Ms. Sneed took six bottles of food coloring and a flashlight out of her science cabinet.
Just then, the bell rang. The students filed in and began to take their seats. “Okay, everyone, we’re going to start the day in our science lab groups. Then you’ll try the first of our thermal energy activities.”
“Yay!” The kids began to chatter happily. Ms. Sneed handed out their lab sheets then quieted them down.
What Is Heat?
“For the first activity, you will observe a drop of food coloring in hot, warm, and cold water. In the second part, you’ll rub your hands together and check out this flashlight.” Ms. Sneed turned on the flashlight and laid it on a side table.
“Let’s get started. Group member #1 will come to the table and take a cup of hot water.” Ms. Sneed pointed to the first set of cups. “Then #2 will get warm water.” She pointed to the second set. “And member #3 will take cold water. Finally, #4 will get a bottle of food coloring.”
As the groups got started, Ms. Sneed circulated. “Wow! Look how quickly the hot water mixes,” a girl said to her teammates.
At another table, students were already rubbing their hands together. “Ow! That’s hot!” they laughed.
Near the end of the class period, two students sat with their heads together. Ms. Sneed listened in as one struggled to make generalizations. “Heat energy came from motion. We saw that in the cup and rubbing our hands together. But the flashlight was different. The lightbulb gave off heat.” He tapped his pencil thoughtfully. “So I guess heat happens when a different form of energy converts to thermal energy.”
Ms. Sneed nodded her head and smiled. The inquiry required for these thermal energy activities sure made kids think!
How Does Heat Travel?
The following day, Ms. Sneed’s class was ready for the second of eight heat activities. “Today’s lab will be brief,” she said. “When you’re finished, watch the related video. I think you’ll like it.”
Once again, the teacher moved around the classroom as her students worked. “The ice cube is making my hand cold,” one girl said.
“Oh really,” Ms. Sneed said. “Which has more heat, your hand or the ice cube?”
“My hand, of course.”
“So which direction is the heat moving?”
“Oh, I get it. The heat is moving from my hand to the ice cube. Therefore, heat moves from hot to cold.”
What Is Conduction?
To save time, Ms. Sneed decided to do three heat activities on Wednesday. She arranged them in stations.
For conduction, students moved through two stations.
- At the first center, a set of metal salad tongs rested against the side of a bowl filled with hot water. Kids touched the handle of the tongs. It was really warm!
- Ms. Sneed managed this station. As students moved to the table, she ran an iron across a towel. Then each student felt the warmth of the towel.
Kids quickly understood that conduction occurred when two objects touched. Again, heat moved from warmer regions to cooler.
What Is Convection?
Students moved to two more stations to learn about convection.
- After pouring warm water into a plastic cup, students used a straw to add colored cold water underneath the warm water. Surprisingly, the colored water stayed at the bottom of the cup.
- As they held a curlicue above an electric candle, groups noticed that it began to spin. Warm air was rising off the candle.
These heat activities illustrated that warm air or water rises while cold sinks.
What Is Radiation?
Two simple thermal energy activities illustrated radiation:
- Students held their hands above an electric candle. Although they didn’t touch the candle, they still felt the heat.
- Then they stood in the ray of sunshine streaming in the classroom window. Yes, they felt that heat too.
With radiation, heat travels through air or space.
Which Materials Insulate and Conduct Heat?
On the fourth day, students experimented with insulators and conductors of heat. As she watched them measure temperatures with thermometers, Ms. Sneed smiled. She loved the way this lab did double duty. Her class was practicing math skills during science.
How Does Heat Change Matter?
For the seventh of eight thermal energy activities, students observed water in three states: solid, liquid, and gas. While they’d learned this before, Ms. Sneed was glad for the review – especially of scientific vocabulary.
How Do We Measure Heat?
For the final lab, students once again reviewed concepts. This activity focused on reading a thermometer, as well as temperatures in Fahrenheit and Celsius.
Did Ms. Sneed enjoy teaching with hands-on heat activities? You bet! Hands-on experiences engaged her students and made her classroom a happy learning place. The following year, she decided to add similar units on light, sound, and electricity.