If you are a middle school science teacher, there’s a good chance, at some point, you’ll find yourself teaching a thermal energy lesson or two. It’s a very common topic included within middle school science curriculums, particularly for those with a focus on physical science. As with most important scientific principles taught within the middle school classroom, I find that hands-on investigations, energy science experiments, and other hands-on activities are often the best way to make this important fundamental concept come alive for middle schoolers. If you are preparing to teach your own energy unit, here are a few of my favorite thermal energy projects for middle school science.
Let’s start with the basics!
Thermal energy is one of several different forms of energy described within the earth sciences. Also known as heat energy, thermal energy can be defined as the energy an object has because of the movement of its molecules.
Other types of energy include:
- Light energy
- Chemical energy
- Mechanical energy
- Electrical energy
- Gravitational energy
- Elastic energy
If you’re looking for a great way to introduce the different types of energy, as well as the law of conservation of energy, check out the interactive slides below:
thermal energy projects for middle school science
As I mentioned before, when it comes to solidifying content knowledge for your middle school science students, there truly is no beating hands-on experience. When a student is able to see and apply the content concepts they’ve learned through other activities (such as guided readings or interactive slides) the concepts go from being abstract and theoretical (not to mention, easily forgotten) to concrete ideas with a real world application.
Isn’t that the whole point of teaching science after all?
“Undertake a design project to construct, test, and modify a device that either releases or absorbs thermal energy by chemical processes.”
Alright, let’s get down to the crux of the matter…practical and effective thermal energy projects for middle school science. Over the years, I’ve trialed many different types of science experiments and hands-on projects. When it comes to teaching energy transformations, specifically the transfer of thermal energy, these projects are some of the best! Not only are they fun and exciting for my students, they are feel manageable for me as the teacher. It’s truly a win-win!
Ice Cream Boxes
Want a quick and easy way to grab the attention of a room full of pre-teens?! Give them ice cream!! For this project, students will work in small groups to design and build a small box that minimizes the transfer of thermal energy and keeps the temperature of the sample (in this case, delicious ice cream) consistently cool. The best part of this particular project? Students can enjoy a tasty ice cream snack at the end!
Insulated Water Bottle Challenge
Similar to the ice cream experiment mentioned above, the insulated water bottle challenge is another favorite when it comes to heat transfer projects. For this stem project, students will work together to design their very own insulated water bottle that keeps the contents of the water bottle nice and toasty warm. Students will need to test and assess which types of materials, as well as the thickness of those materials, are the best when it comes to maintaining the temperature of the water.
If you’d like to spice this activity up, try using hot chocolate instead of hot water. The process and learning lessons will remain the same, but class time will end with a tasty treat!
Save the Penguin Project
Save the Penguins is a series of three activities investigating the transfer and movement of thermal energy. Throughout the course of this three part lesson series, students will explore different types of energy conductors and insulators. They will observe how energy moves from areas of higher temperature to areas of lower temperature.
This project culminates in a hands-on stem activity, in which students will be asked to use the knowledge they’ve gained regarding the transfer of heat to design and build a shelter for penguins. Their penguin dwellings should, ideally, prevent the transfer of heat energy in order to effectively keep an ice cube from melting. Students are encouraged to experiment with different materials and record their observations.
Looking for additional resources to beef up your transfer of energy unit? Here are a few of my favorite resources that I’ve used within my own middle school science classroom. Check them out!
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