Penguin Homes

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SWBAT design and construct prototype homes that will keep penguin shaped ice cubes safe from different types of heat transfer.

Big Idea

Using data collected as scientists, students will work as engineers using the engineering design process to build and test prototype homes for penguins.

The Need for the Lesson

Students will discover the need to work as scientists first to collect data then as engineers use that data to engineer a solution.

The connection between engineering and science is elusive to students. This lesson models how science and engineering are related. It is with the understanding of science that we can engineering solutions to our problems.

Investigation Preparation and Summary

30 minutes

Students will use the research they collected from Materials Affect the Rate of Heat Transfer - Experimental Design to determine which materials are best to use to construct a home save from heat transfer for their ice cube penguins. (SP4 Analyzing and interpreting data) (SP6 Constructing explanations and designing solutions) (SP1 Asking questions and defining problems)

The project constraints are the materials provided and the money allocated to spend on the project. Each student team will have a budget of $100 to purchase supplies for the penguin home. The criteria for success will the that the ice cube penguin will melt the least when the prototype home is tested. (MS-ETS1-1 Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions.)

Student engineers will retreat to their own individual offices to sketch a prototype home for the penguin. The student engineer will complete a supply list including the total cost of materials. Student engineering teams will meet once each member has a design idea to determine which solution or if necessary a new solution best meets the criteria and constraints. This will be the prototype that will be built and tested. (MS-ETS1-2Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.)  (SP2 Developing and using models) 

Student engineers will evaluate their test results and tweak their prototype design for further testing. A small budget will be allowed to purchase additional materials. By testing and making changes, students will understand that an engineering project is not a one and done assignment. Engineers are always looking for ways to improve. (MS-ETS1-3Analyze data from tests to determine similarities and differences among several design solutions to identify the best characteristics of each that can be combined into a new solution to better meet the criteria for success.) (MS-ETS1-4Develop a model to generate data for iterative testing and modification of a proposed object, tool, or process such that an optimal design can be achieved.)(SP7 Engaging in argument from evidence) (SP8 Obtaining, evaluating and communicating information)

Students will use the same testing stations as they did in Materials Affect the Rate of Heat Transfer - Experimental Design. The materials for building will be the same as in Materials Affect the Rate of Heat Transfer - Experimental Design with the addition of glue.

An easy-to-print materials list is available in the resources section.

This lesson was adapted from Save the Penguins ©2009 Christine G. Schnittka, Ph.D. in cooperation with the Virginia Middle School, Engineering Education Initiative (updated version 5-13-13)

Students in Action

90 minutes

Student engineers go to their "offices" to individually design a home for the ice cube penguin. The engineer creates a list of materials and determines the total cost of construction.

When both engineers complete their designs, they meet to compare ideas. The team may select one of the designs or develop a new design. Once the plans are finalized, materials are purchased from "the store" to begin construction. The budget for the home is $100.

Price List for Materials

Each of the materials has a cost of $10. The big idea here is to design a home that minimizes the heat the ice cube penguin is exposed to and limits the loss of mass.

When the engineers complete the construction of the home they begin testing. Penguins are placed in their home for 15 minutes. At the end of the 15 minute test students retrieve the ice penguin and place it in a paper cup. The mass of the ice cube penguin and cup is found. Students can subtract the mass of the cup to find the exact mass of the ice cube penguin after the test. I remind them to be sure to empty any remaining liquid from the cup before finding the mass.

Results are recorded on the whiteboard with team name, beginning mass of the penguin ice cube, ending mass of the penguin ice cube and the cost of materials used.

We look at the data collected and determine as a class how we will evaluate the best penguin home designs. 

    • Find the cost per gram of the initial mass of the penguin (cost of materials / mass of penguin)
    • Find the cost per gram of the mass lost (cost per gram of the initial mass of the penguin * mass lost)
    • The lowest cost of mass lost represents the best design


$70 / 6.2 grams = $11.29 cost per gram

$11.29 cost per gram * .2 grams lost = $2.26


$100 / 7.6 grams = 13.16 cost per gram

$13.16 cost per gram * .1 grams lost = $1.32


Although the $100 example is more expensive to build, the team had the lowest loss of mass and also the lowest cost per gram lost. 

After the first test, student engineer groups conference to determine what changes can be made to improve the home design. 

In this video I share the anchor charts we use for the scientific method and engineering design process.

Connecting the Learning

10 minutes

After all testing is complete we wrap-up with a whole class discussion.

What are the three types of heat transfer we used in this lesson?

  • Radiation - radiation is the heat from the light along with the reflection of the light off the foil sides of the test station.
  • Conduction - bottom of the test station box is painted black and will heat up from the radiation from the light. The heat of the floor will warm the air under the penguin home. 
  • Convection - the heated air radiated from the light will rise in the test station, cool and sink. We talked about convection currents in the lesson - Convection Currents as an earth science lesson.  


We discussed heat transfer in Materials Effect the Rate of Heat Transfer - Experimental Design.

What is the engineering design process we used in this lesson?

Define a problem or a need.

Identify constraints.

Identify criteria for success.



Repeat the design and test steps until the best solution is found.

Communicate our results.

Why is it important that we work as scientists and collect data before we begin working as engineers? What is the connection between science and engineering?

We can use the scientific facts to help us make informed decisions.

Can you name other organisms that might be affected by global warming?

Students answer with polar bears.