Exploring Heat Transfer: Conduction

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SWABAT explain how model of heat transfer by conduction involves the collision of molecules.

Big Idea

This lessons uses a simple model activate student ideas on heat transfer by way of conduction.

Getting Started

For the first activity I use a lesson from the American Chemical Society. It uses materials that are inexpensive and easy to obtain and is presented in an simple to follow format with video and animation for support. 

The lesson can be found at their Middle School Chemistry website.

You will need metal washers (8-10 per group), string, styrofoam cups, a source of hot water and cool water and thermometers. 

One of the great elements to this lesson are the visuals that help students construct an image of what molecules are doing when you heat or cool them. 

The website includes handouts and readings. I have included them here for you as well. 

Disciplinary Core Ideas:

  • Temperature is a measure of the average kinetic energy of particles of matter. The relationship between the temperature and the total energy of a system depends on the types, states, and amounts of matter present. (MS-PS3-3), (MS-PS3-4)
  • When the motion energy of an object changes, there is inevitably some other change in energy at the same time. (MS-PS3-5)
  • The amount of energy transfer needed to change the temperature of a matter sample by a given amount depends on the nature of the matter, the size of the sample, and the environment. (MS-PS3-4)
  • Energy is spontaneously transferred out of hotter regions or objects and into colder ones. (MS-PS3-3).


Crosscutting Concepts:

Energy and Matter

  • Energy may take different forms. (MS-PS3-5)
  • The transfer of energy can be tracked by energy flows through a designed or natural system. (MS-PS3-3).


100 minutes

If you follow the lesson as it is laid out on the website, I found it to take two full 55 minutes class periods. 

Day 1: Have students explore and explain what happens when 1) room-temperature metal is placed in hot water and 2) hot metal is placed in room temperature water

Day 2: Watch videos of molecular models and create their own molecular models of heat transfer by conduction from this lab and discuss the connection between molecular motion, temperature, and conduction. 

I also like the extension portion of this lesson which has students touch the metal part of their chairs and the plastic parts of their chairs. It begins a great discussion of why some materials are better conductors or insulators which will be useful in an upcoming lesson on designing a thermos. 

I recommend focusing on the post discussion if this lab and eliciting student ideas. You are laying important groundwork in these early lessons to help students dig into heat and temperature more than just running through a series of labs. 

Below is a video of students making meaning of heat transfer by means of conduction using this model. 

Exit Ticket

5 minutes

Before students leave for the day ask them to write down an example of this type of heat transfer from their everyday life. 

Use the results of these responses as a formative assessment to adjust the how you progress from this lesson. If student thinking is not clear than consider following up the next day with a summary. Since we will continue to come back to conduction many more times, looking at different models related to Earth systems, it's a good ideas to build a solid foundation of heat transfer early on.