Hands-on Activity: What Is the Best Insulator: Air, Styrofoam, Foil or Cotton?
Educational Standards :
Learning Objectives (Return to Contents)
After this activity, students should be able to:
Materials List (Return to Contents)
Each group needs:
To share with the entire class:
Introduction/Motivation (Return to Contents)
When you go to a summer picnic at a beach, in the mountains or at a lake, why do you put your cold drinks and ice in a cooler? What would happen if you put them in a backpack instead? (Listen to student ideas.) Yes, that's right, you would end up with a wet backpack and warm drinks. The cooler helps to keep the drinks cold because it acts as an insulator and slows the transfer of energy from one source to another, meaning it helps keeps the inside of the cooler cold and the heat out.
The opposite of an insulator is a conductor. What do you think a conductor does? (Listen to student ideas.) Yes, that's right, a conductor speeds up the transfer of energy from one source to another. You may have experienced this if you ever removed the lid to a pot cooking on the stove. A metal pot is a conductor and heats up quickly on the stove so that it cooks food or boils water faster. Just be careful before touching a metal pot because you could get burned.
What would happen if you designed a cooler using a material that acts as a conductor? Or a cooking pot with a material that acts as an insulator? (Listen to student ideas.)
Vocabulary/Definitions (Return to Contents)
Procedure (Return to Contents)
Insulation helps keep cold things from warming up and warm things from cooling down. Insulators do this by slowing down the loss of heat from warm things and the gaining of heat by cool things. Plastics and rubber are usually good insulators. It is for this reason that electrical wires are coated to make them more safe to handle. Metals, on the other hand, usually make good conductors. In fact, copper is used in most electrical wires and circuit boards for this reason.
Before the Activity
With the Students
Attachments (Return to Contents)
Investigating Questions (Return to Contents)
Assessment (Return to Contents)
Pre-Activity Prediction: Have students feel and examine the test insulating materials (Styrofoam, aluminum foil, cotton, air), and have groups make predictions about which they think will work best. Their predictions give some indication of their understanding of heat transfer and insulation concepts.
Embedded Assessment: Observe students during the experimental process. Evaluate their comprehension of the subject matter and activity engagement using the criteria provided in the Rubric for Performance Assessment, which considers their understanding of insulating materials and teamwork.
Homework: Ask students to write paragraph-long answers to the two following questions, to turn in the next day or share in a class discussion. Review their answers to gauge their comprehension of the activity content.
Activity Extensions (Return to Contents)
So students can experience first hand that foil is not a good insulator, extend the activity with this quick hands-on demonstration:
References (Return to Contents)
Kessler, James H. and Andrea Bennett. The Best of WonderScience: Elementary Science Activities. Boston, MA: Delmar Publishers, 1997. pp 207, 210-211. ISBN: 0827380941
Copyright© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2004 Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Supporting Program (Return to Contents)Center for Engineering Educational Outreach, Tufts University
Acknowledgements (Return to Contents)
The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under a National Science Foundation GK-12 grant. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.