Hands-on Activity: Stop Heat from Escaping

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder
A specialist spray contractor applying WALLTITE polyurethane spray foam insulations to internal roofs and walls of a house.
Students learn how insulation works and its importance


One way to conserve energy in a building is to use adequate insulation. Insulation helps keep the hot or cool air inside or outside of a building. Inefficient heating and cooling of buildings is a leading residential and industrial source of wasteful energy use. In this activity, students act as engineers and determine which type of insulation would conserve the most energy.

Engineering Connection

The heating and cooling of buildings uses a lot of energy, so engineers continually look for creative ways to reduce the heating and cooling demands, and thus the total amount of energy required. One way to do this is by using insulation. Today, engineers have developed many types of insulation such as fiber glass, rock wool, mineral wool, natural wool, cotton, straw, cellulose, paper, polyurethane foam, polystyrene foam, polyester and soy foam. Some insulating materials are suitable for sound proofing, too.

Educational Standards

  •   Colorado: Math
  •   Colorado: Science
  •   Common Core State Standards for Mathematics: Math
  •   International Technology and Engineering Educators Association: Technology
  •   Next Generation Science Standards: Science

Pre-Req Knowledge

Students should be familiar with the steps of the scientific investigation process.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Describe how insulation works.
  • Demonstrate how some materials insulate better than others.
  • Relate that effective insulation helps conserve energy.
  • Describe how energy engineers use insulation when designing products.

Materials List

Each group needs:
  • 4 plastic water or soda bottles (~591 ml or 20 oz size)
  • Hot tap water
  • Thermometer (Fahrenheit scale)
  • Newspaper
  • Wool sock
  • Large piece of aluminum foil (enough to wrap around a bottle)
  • Large piece of thick, black plastic bag (enough to wrap around a bottle)
  • Tape
  • Stop Heat from Escaping Worksheet


What does it mean to conserve energy? (Answer: It means using energy wisely and efficiently.) Sometimes people waste energy by not using it wisely. Buildings can often waste great amounts of energy. Most of a building's energy use is for heating or cooling. One way engineers reduce the amount of energy required to heat or cool a building is by using good insulation.
Insulation is a material or substance that is used to prevent the transfer of heat, electricity or sound. In a building, insulation is placed in the walls and roof. When insulating a building, the quality of an insulation material is measured by how well it keeps heat out. Typically, heat flows from warm areas to cool areas. When you touch something that is cold, heat is actually leaving your body to try and warm the cool surface, creating a balance of energy. Insulation helps to prevent that transfer of heat.
There are many different materials used for insulation. Engineers often use fiber glass, wool, cotton, paper (wood cellulose), straw and various types of foams to insulate buildings. A layer of trapped air can serve as insulation, too! Some insulating materials are suitable for sound proofing as well.
In this activity, a homeowner has heard about all the different types of insulation that are available to use in a new house and requests your help to decide between wool, newspaper, aluminum foil and a plastic bag to insulate the house. Let's conduct a scientific experiment so we have good information from which to help the engineering team decide which material would be best.


The wise and efficient use of energy resources, resulting in reduced energy usage.
A non-conductive material or substance used to prevent the transfer of heat, electricity or sound.
1) Form a hypothesis, 2) Make predictions for that hypothesis, 3) Test the predictions, and 4) Reject or revise the hypothesis based on the research findings.


Before the Activity

With the Students

  1. Divide the class into teams of two to four students each. Hand out a worksheet to each team.
  2. Remind the students that today we are conducting an engineering investigation. Review the steps of a scientific investigation (see the Vocabulary/Definitions section). Engineers need to understand energy conservation concepts to design more effective home energy systems.
  3. On the board, write the problem question that will be addressed today. (Example: Which type of insulation would keep my house warmest in the winter?)
  4. Show the students the four insulation materials to be tested. Ask them to hypothesize which they think is best insulating material. Have them circle their predictions on their worksheets.
  5. Wrap the four plastic bottles with equal amounts of each material (newspaper, wool sock, aluminum foil and plastic bag) to serve as insulators.
  6. Pour equal amounts of hot tap water into each bottle.
  7. Immediately after the hot water is poured in the bottle, measure its temperature. Record these beginning temperatures on the worksheets.
  8. For 15 minutes, have students make drawings of their set-up on their worksheets.
  9. After 15 minutes, measure and record the (ending) temperature of the water in each bottle again.
  10. To calculate the change in temperature for each bottle, subtract the ending temperature from the beginning temperature.
  11. Ask the students to determine which material was the best insulator based on their data. Which had the smallest change of temperature? What material(s) do you recommend?
  12. As a class, agree on a concluding statement for the experiment based on everyone's research findings. Have the students suggest ideas for potential future insulation tests they may want to conduct.

Safety Issues

  • Remind the students that glass thermometers are breakable.

Troubleshooting Tips

If hot water is not available, use water chilled with ice.
Have a digital thermometer handy in case the change in temperature is not large enough to be read from a regular thermometer.


Pre-Activity Assessment

Drawing: Have the students draw pictures of a typical summer clothing outfit and a typical winter clothing outfit. As a class, discuss the differences and why.
Discussion: How do clothes serve as insulation for the human body? Ask the students what type of clothes they wear in the summer and what they wear in the winter? What is the difference between the clothing? (Possible answers: Summer clothes allow the heat created by our bodies to dissipate into the surrounding air. Winter clothes, such as heavy winter jackets, sweaters, mittens and hats, trap our body's heat to keep us warm.)

Activity Embedded Assessment

Worksheet: Have the student teams complete the Stop Heat from Escaping Worksheet to guide them through the activity. Review their answers to gauge their mastery of the concepts.

Post-Activity Assessment

Discussion: Which material provides the best insulation? Which would you wear to keep warm in the winter? We all use too much energy. If we were to reduce the amount of energy we use each day, then we would cause less pollution of the environment and our fossil fuels would last longer. Engineers find many ways to conserve energy in our homes, schools and offices. If we built houses with better insulation, less heat would escape through the walls, roof and windows. Light bulbs with lower energy demand also help conserve energy.
Insulation Application: Insulation prevents the transfer of heat, electricity or sound. Have students design a different product using insulation. How many things can they think of that would use the idea of insulation? Examples include a swimming pool, a house in an extreme environment, clothing, ear plugs, a coffee mug, an electric plug or an auditorium.

Activity Extensions

Follow the same procedure using ice-cold water.
Have students measure the temperature on the inside and outside of the bottle and examine the transfer of heat through the insulating material.
Have students research the types of materials used in the construction of buildings and houses, coffee mugs and winter jackets.
Using the information learned from this activity, have students create small model homes using the insulation materials, and test the temperature readings on the inside and outside.

Activity Scaling

  • To add a math component, have students measure the water temperature every five minutes and create a graph showing temperature vs. time.
  • To add a math component, have students report/plot temperature in degrees Celsius or Kelvin, instead of Fahrenheit


EERE Consumer's Guide: Your Home: Insulation and Air Sealing. Content last updated September 12, 2005. Energy Savers, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, U.S. Department of Energy. Accessed September 18, 2006. http://www.eere.energy.gov/consumer/your_home/insulation_airsealing/index.cfm/mytopic=11220

Energy Conservation: Yesterday and Today, Chapter 5. Renewable Energy Curriculum, TVA Kids for Teachers, Tennessee Valley Authority. Accessed September 21, 2005. http://www.tvakids.com/teachers/pdf/elementary_ch5.pdf


Sharon D. Perez-Suarez, Natalie Mach, Malinda Schaefer Zarske, Denise Carlson


© 2005 by Regents of the University of Colorado.

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education and National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. 0338326. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: February 11, 2016

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