Lesson: Heat Flow and Diagrams Lab

Quick Look

Grade Level: 12 (9-12)

Time Required: 1 hour

Lesson Dependency:

Subject Areas: Physics

Two colorful graphs made using a thermal imager show temperature radiating from two heat sources. Blue colors are hotter and red is colder. They look like a rainbow of color rings from a hot blue center.
These thermal imager graphics are a good example of how some information is easier to show visually than to describe in words or numbers.
Copyright © 2010 Bertaklerta, Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Heat_diffusion.png


Students' eyes are opened to the value of creative, expressive and succinct visual presentation of data, findings and concepts. Student pairs design, redesign and perform simple experiments to test the differences in thermal conductivity (heat flow) through different media (foil and thin steel). Then students create visual diagrams of their findings that can be understood by anyone with little background on the subject, applying their newly learned art vocabulary and concepts to clearly communicate their results. The principles of visual design include contrast, alignment, repetition and proximity; the elements of visual design include an awareness of the use of lines, color, texture, shape, size, value and space. If students already have data available from other experiments, have them jump right into the diagram creation and critique portions of the activity.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

One important skill for scientists and engineers is to be able to clearly explain and demonstrate their findings. Everything from promotions, to funding, to submitting publications requires easy-to-follow explanations. While equations and writing are two main techniques, use of the visual arts can often be more effective at describing phenomena. Diagrams, 3D modeling, short animations, schematics and graphs can all be effective ways to explain a lot of data quickly and clearly.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Design and perform an experiment.
  • Evaluate the accuracy of their data and determine how to improve it.
  • Construct a visual model to represent their data.
  • Control experiment variables in order to determine correlation.

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

NGSS Performance Expectation

HS-ETS1-2. Design a solution to a complex real-world problem by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable problems that can be solved through engineering. (Grades 9 - 12)

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This lesson focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Design a solution to a complex real-world problem, based on scientific knowledge, student-generated sources of evidence, prioritized criteria, and tradeoff considerations.

Alignment agreement:

Models, mechanisms, and explanations collectively serve as tools in the development of a scientific theory.

Alignment agreement:

Communicate scientific ideas (e.g. about phenomena and/or the process of development and the design and performance of a proposed process or system) in multiple formats (including orally, graphically, textually, and mathematically).

Alignment agreement:

Use a model to provide mechanistic accounts of phenomena.

Alignment agreement:

Criteria may need to be broken down into simpler ones that can be approached systematically, and decisions about the priority of certain criteria over others (trade-offs) may be needed.

Alignment agreement:

Models (e.g., physical, mathematical, computer models) can be used to simulate systems and interactions—including energy, matter, and information flows—within and between systems at different scales.

Alignment agreement:

  • Use appropriate tools strategically. (Grades K - 12) More Details

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  • Define appropriate quantities for the purpose of descriptive modeling. (Grades 9 - 12) More Details

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  • Choose a level of accuracy appropriate to limitations on measurement when reporting quantities. (Grades 9 - 12) More Details

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  • Summarize, represent, and interpret data on two categorical and quantitative variables (Grades 9 - 12) More Details

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  • Students will develop an understanding of the attributes of design. (Grades K - 12) More Details

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  • Students will develop an understanding of engineering design. (Grades K - 12) More Details

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  • Established design principles are used to evaluate existing designs, to collect data, and to guide the design process. (Grades 9 - 12) More Details

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  • Engineering design is influenced by personal characteristics, such as creativity, resourcefulness, and the ability to visualize and think abstractly. (Grades 9 - 12) More Details

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  • A prototype is a working model used to test a design concept by making actual observations and necessary adjustments. (Grades 9 - 12) More Details

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  • The process of engineering design takes into account a number of factors. (Grades 9 - 12) More Details

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  • Scientific investigators control the conditions of their experiments in order to produce valuable data. (Grades 9 - 12) More Details

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  • Scientific researchers are expected to critically assess the quality of data including possible sources of bias in their investigations' hypotheses, observations, data analyses, and interpretations. (Grades 9 - 12) More Details

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  • Scientists use practices such as peer review and publication to reinforce the integrity of scientific activity and reporting. (Grades 9 - 12) More Details

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  • The merit of a new theory is judged by how well scientific data are explained by the new theory. (Grades 9 - 12) More Details

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Suggest an alignment not listed above

Worksheets and Attachments

Visit [www.teachengineering.org/lessons/view/gat_visual_art_lesson01_activity1] to print or download.

More Curriculum Like This

Visual Art and Writing in Science and Engineering

Students learn the value of writing and art in science and engineering. They acquire vocabulary that is appropriate for explaining visual art and learn about visual design principles (contrast, alignment, repetition and proximity) and elements (lines, color, texture, shape, size, value and space) th...

Pre-Req Knowledge

Students should have completed the associated lesson to attain background information about the value of good visual communication, the principles and elements of visual design and the real-world research funding process.

Students should have had basic introduction to the engineering design process, which they apply in the activity to design their labs. Learn more at https://www.teachengineering.org/engrdesignprocess.php.

This activity requires no formal prior knowledge on thermodynamics; students should be able to draw on their lifetimes of everyday heating/cooling experiences (with refrigerators, ovens, space heaters, drinking glass condensation, etc.) in order to draw conclusions.


Art and communication are two topics that go hand-in-hand in STEM fields. Flip through any textbook, newspaper, technology magazine or article and you will likely find many visual images being used to show information, concepts and ideas. Some are focused on grabbing your attention or bringing to light something you may not have noticed. But many are used to communicate data and help people understand in ways that equations, data tables and long explanations often do not do as effectively.

This idea is not only true for educational purposes, but also for scientists and engineers in their efforts to get research and start-up funding. Grants are the source of most funding for scientific and engineering research and activities and, in order to get those funds, the proposing team must be able to communicate its ideas clearly. The reviewing people deciding who get the funds may not be experts in the specific field and only know the basics. If the engineering team does not communicate information at a level that can be easily understood by the reviewers, their projects may be deemed too complicated or risky, or just not understood, and funds may be awarded to other projects.


alignment: How visually connected elements of an image are. If every element is visually connected then nothing feels out of place or disjointed. Creates a sense of balance.

chip cap: A thick material, usually metal, that spreads out the heat given off by a computer chip.

color: An element of art derived from reflected light. Color has hue, value and intensity.

contrast: The difference in values, colors, textures, shapes and other elements. Contrast creates visual excitement.

heat flow rate: The rate at which thermal energy is transferred from one location to another, either from one material to another, or from a hot end to a cold end of the same material.

heat sink: A device that absorbs large quantities of heat and distributes this heat into the air or surrounding medium.

heat spreader: Another term for chip cap. Some devices use a heat spreader and then a separate attachment for the fins, unlike a chip cap, which is one unit.

line: The path of a moving point in space. A line provides something for the eye to follow and can create movement.

proximity: How close one object is to another. Can create depth of field or give an appearance that one object is larger or smaller than expected.

repetition: Recreation of the same or similar elements in a visual art piece. Creates cohesiveness in an image when a pattern is repeated multiple times.

shape: A two-dimensional area that is defined in some way. Geometric shapes look human-made and organic shapes are more free form.

size: How large or small an object is. Can be used to create focus and give the illusion of depth.

texture: In art, the visual and tactile quality of a surface resulting from the way in which the materials are used. The imitation of the tactile quality of represented objects.

thermal interface material: A material with a high thermal conductivity (k value), usually a paste or adhesive (sometimes a film or pad), that increases surface area between two points of contact by filling in all gaps between the two surfaces, thereby increasing heat flow.

value: In terms of color, the darkness or lightness of an object or color.


Pre-Activity Assessment

Discussion Questions: Assess students' prior knowledge of thermodynamics with the following questions. Use everyday examples to help illustrate points, such as ice in a glass, an open refrigerator, an open oven door.

  • Does heat flow from hot to cold or cold to hot? (Answer: Hot to cold.)
  • How fast does heat flow? (Acceptable answers: Quickly, fast, depends on the material[s].)
  • What kind of things do you think affect heat flow? (Answer: Material thickness, material thermal coefficient [material type], contact surface area, temperature difference.)
  • Does an object get hot all at once or does the heat spread slowly from one place to another? (Answer: Heat spreads gradually from the heat source to the colder ends of the object.)

Activity Embedded Assessment

Guided Lab Questions: Observe student groups and ask questions to guide their experiment evolutions. Ask questions to get them to think about their lab designs and how they affect the data. If time permits, let them make mistakes on their lab designs to serve as teaching moments for these types of questions as well. A few example questions:

  • Is it better to measure from one location or several?
  • Do you need to worry about time?
  • Should the heater be in the center, on the edge, the bottom, the top?
  • How are you going to keep your measurements consistent?
  • How can you reduce human error in the data?

Post-Activity Assessment

Final Diagram Grading: Using what the class determines to be the diagram design requirements, direct students to create their own diagrams to represent (or explain) heat flow, and turn them in for grading the following day. Review students' diagrams for clarity, adherence to the class key, neatness and timeliness, as delineated on the Diagram Grading Rubric. Then conclude with summary assessment described in the associated lesson write-up—lab data evaluation and lab write-up homework.

Lesson Extension Activities

Have students repeat the experiment, but study a different variable.

Have students do mathematical models instead of pictorial models and compare which is most useful for what times.

Additional Multimedia Support

A website that focuses on arts integration research, Harvard's Project Zero: http://www.pz.harvard.edu/


© 2015 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2014 Georgia Institute of Technology


Andrew Carnes, Satish Kumar, Jamila Cola, Baratunde Cola, ARTSNow, PRIME 2014 Fellows

Supporting Program

Partnerships for Research, Innovation and Multi-Scale Engineering (PRIME) RET, Georgia Tech


This activity was developed by the Partnerships for Research, Innovation and Multi-Scale Engineering (PRIME) Research Experience for Teachers (RET) Program at Georgia Institute of Technology, funded by National Science Foundation RET grant no. EEC 140718. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the NSF, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Thank you to all the contributors for their knowledge, time and patience working with someone who is new to arts integration.

Thank you to Georgia Institute of Technology for the use of its facilities, faculty and staff in helping to develop this lesson plan.

Last modified: February 13, 2020


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