Hands-on Activity: What is the Best Insulator: Air, Styrofoam, Foil or Cotton?
Educational Standards :
Learning Objectives (Return to Contents)
Materials List (Return to Contents)
Introduction/Motivation (Return to Contents)
When you go to a summer picnic or the beach or at the 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 cover of 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
Discuss with your students what types of devices they have seen or used to keep things both warm or cold. Talk about the materials from which they think these devices are made. Have students examine the insulators they are going to be given and have the groups make predictions about which will work best.
Attachments (Return to Contents)
Investigating Questions (Return to Contents)
Assessment (Return to Contents)
Activity Extensions (Return to Contents)
For students to experience first hand that foil is not a good insulator, follow-up 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: Delmar Publishers, 1997. p 207, 210-211 ISBN: 0827380941
Copyright© 2004 by Worcester Polytechnic Institute including copyrighted works of other educational institutions; all rights reserved.
Supporting Program (Return to Contents)Center for Engineering Educational Outreach, Tufts University
Last Modified: August 9, 2012