Students learn about the difference between temperature and thermal energy. They build a thermometer using simple materials and develop their own scale for measuring temperature. They compare their thermometer to a commercial thermometer, and get a sense for why engineers need to understand the properties of thermal energy.
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- Colorado: Math
- Colorado: Science
- d. Use data collection tools and measuring devices to gather, organize, and analyze data such as temperature, air pressure, wind, and humidity in relation to daily weather conditions (Grade 5)  ...show
- b. Analyze and interpret a variety of data to understand the origin, utilization, and concerns associated with natural resources (Grade 5)  ...show
- Common Core State Standards for Mathematics: Math
- 4. Generate measurement data by measuring lengths using rulers marked with halves and fourths of an inch. Show the data by making a line plot, where the horizontal scale is marked off in appropriate units— whole numbers, halves, or quarters. (Grade 3)  ...show
- 6. Solve real world problems involving multiplication of fractions and mixed numbers, e.g., by using visual fraction models or equations to represent the problem. (Grade 5)  ...show
- International Technology and Engineering Educators Association: Technology
- D. Tools, materials, and skills are used to make things and carry out tasks. (Grades 3 - 5)  ...show
- Next Generation Science Standards: Science
- Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost. (Grades 3 - 5)  ...show
- Explain how a thermometer works.
- Describe the physical changes that occur in a thermometer with increasing or decreasing temperature.
- Explain how engineers use thermometers in everyday applications.
- Develop a scale for measuring temperature on a thermometer they build.
- Clear, narrow-necked plastic bottle (~355 ml [12 oz] water bottles work well) (Ask students to bring rinsed plastic bottles from home)
- Clear, plastic drinking straw
- Make Your Own Temperature Scale Worksheet, one per student
- A few thermometers
- Measuring cups
- 207 ml (7 oz) rubbing alcohol
- 207 ml (7 oz) water
- Large glass jar (to mix the alcohol and water)
- Stirring rod
- Food coloring
- Fine-point permanent markers
- Modeling clay
|The theoretical temperature at which substances possess no thermal energy; equal to -273.15°C, -459.67°F or 0°K.|
|The transmission or conveying of heat, sound or electricity through touching materials, without perceptible motion of the materials themselves.|
|A material through which energy (electrical, thermal or sound) can be easily transferred.|
|To reduce in size by drawing together. The liquid inside a thermometer contracts when the temperature gets colder.|
|To increase in size. The liquid inside a thermometer expands when the temperature gets warmer. Heat makes a liquid expand.|
|A form of energy associated with the motion of atoms or molecules, and capable of being transmitted through solid and fluid media by conduction, through fluid media by convection, and through empty space by radiation.|
|The transfer of thermal energy between bodies due to a difference in their temperatures.|
|A material through which energy (electrical, thermal or sound) cannot be easily transferred.|
|The degree of hotness or coldness of a body or environment. A measurement of thermal energy. The average kinetic energy of the particles that make up an object.|
|The energy an object has due to the motion of its particles. Also called heat energy.|
|When the temperatures of two or more bodies are equal.|
|An instrument for measuring temperature, especially one having a graduated glass tube with a bulb containing a liquid (often mercury or colored alcohol) that expands and rises in the tube as the temperature increases.|
|A system of ordered marks at fixed intervals used as a reference standard for temperature measurement, and based on the freezing and boiling temperatures of water. For example, Celsius, Farenheit and Kelvin thermometer scales, used by scientists and engineers for different applications.|
Before the Activity
- A week before the activity, ask each student bring to school a clear, plastic disposable bottle with a small neck.
- Gather materials and make copies of the Make Your Own Temperature Scale Worksheet.
- Prepare a mixture of equal parts rubbing alcohol and water. Each team needs about 59 ml (2 oz) of this mixture. Use a stirring rod to keep the solution mixed.
With the Students
- Pour about 1/4 cup (~59 ml or 2 oz) of the alcohol-water mixture into each bottle. This should fill 1/8 to 1/4 of the bottle.
- Add a few drops of food coloring to the mixture and swirl gently to mix.
- Using a fine-point permanent marker, have the student teams use a ruler to make equally-spaced marks on the straw. They can use any division they want, as long as the marks divide the straw equally. Advise them to be careful not to bend the straw in this process.
- Ask the students to consider how the scale on a thermometer is marked. Then, have students carefully number the marks on their straw. Their numbers can be negative or positive.
- Direct the teams to decide on a fun unit of measurement for their straw. For example, a commercial thermometer measures in degrees Celsius, Fahrenheit or Kelvin. Have the students develop their own temperature scale name, perhaps degrees Cyndi or temperature measured in silly spots. Direct students to record their temperature scale information on their worksheets.
- Place the straw in the bottle and hold it at the neck of the bottle without letting it touch the bottom.
- Use modeling clay to seal the neck of the bottle so the straw stays in place. The finished thermometer should look similar to the Figure 1 diagram.
- Have the students wrap their hands around the bottle and observe what happens to the mixture in the bottle. Each student should record on their worksheets the thermometer reading using the numbers on their scale. For more dramatic results, place the thermometer in a tub of warm water.
- Have each student team use a real thermometer to measure the temperature of their hands (or tub of water). Record this temperature on the worksheet next to the reading from their thermometer.
- Have everyone take their thermometers and place them in a location away from a source of heat (a hallway instead of in the classroom, or some distance away from a heater). After several minutes, have students record the air temperature reading using their new thermometers. The teacher can provide a measurement using a commercial thermometer.
- Move the thermometers to a source of heat (the warmer classroom instead of a hallway, or near a heater) and repeat.
- Have the students place their thermometers in secure places around the classroom and record the temperature throughout the day. They should also record the corresponding Fahrenheit or Celsius thermometer reading, and note the times the measurements were taken.
- Have students complete their worksheets.
- As a class, compare and discuss the results.
- Have the students write a journal reflection or paragraph about the activity.
- What is thermal energy? (Answer: The energy of heat, or the energy an object has due to the motion of its particles.)
- What does a thermometer do? (Answer: It measure temperature.)
- Why might an engineer want to measure the temperature of an object? (Answer: To make sure the object is the right temperature, neither too hot nor too cold, for the item to function properly. Also, engineers design products that provide heat, such as an oven or hair dryer.)
Activity Embedded Assessment
- What happens to the liquid in your thermometer when it gets colder? (Answer: It contracts and the reading on the straw is lower.)
- What happens to the liquid in your thermometer when it gets warmer? (Answer: It expands and the reading on the straw is higher.)
- What could happen if the thermometer was placed in a very hot liquid? (Answer: The liquid might expand so much that it came out the top of the straw.)
- While this activity is good practice for measuring and marking off units, for younger students it may be helpful to give them a specific unit to measure, such as centimeters, to make sure the straw is marked off in equal increments.
- For younger students, have them copy the example paragraph provided in the Journal Reflection post-activity assessment in the Assessment section. Write the paragraph on the board, leaving some blanks for students to fill in key words.
- To add a math component for upper grades, have students graph the change in classroom temperature throughout the day, using both thermometer readings.
- For advanced math students, have them complete the Temperature Conversion Worksheet.
Dictionary.com. Lexico Publishing Group, LLC. Accessed October 5, 2005. (Source of some vocabulary definitions, with some adaptation) http://www.dictionary.com
Make a Thermometer: Watch How a Simple Thermometer Works. 2003. Science Projects, Energy Quest, California Energy Commission. Accessed October 3, 2005. (Source of activity) http://www.energyquest.ca.gov/projects/thermometer.html
Sabre Duren, Jeff Lyng, Malinda Schaefer Zarske, Denise Carlson
© 2005 by Regents of the University of Colorado.
Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder
Last modified: February 5, 2016