Day 1 of 4--Engineering a Calorimeter: What is a Prototype?

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SWBAT define and describe what a prototype is and begin engagement in the engineering design process by brainstorming creative solutions to a posed problem without design constraints.

Big Idea

A prototype is a model that can be tested and refined in order to meet specifications required of a final product; designing a final product that meets a specific function requires multiple iterations and tests along the way.

Why This Lesson?

At this point in our Thermodynamics study, students have learned about endothermic/exothermic reactions and processes, they have created their own investigation to learn more about these reactions, and now they are ready to critically think about how to prevent heat transfer between a system and its surroundings.

This lesson is one of a four day process.  The goal of this lesson series is to allow students the experience of testing materials, designing a prototype, testing it, and making modifications.  The final product (in this case, a calorimeter) will then be used in a subsequent specific heat capacity investigation, LAB: What Metal Is This? Using Student Engineered Calorimeters In Lab.

In Disciplinary Core Idea ETS1.A, students are expected to define and delimit engineering problems, following specific criteria and constraints.  This sequence of lessons exposes students to the engineering design process from start to finish.

During the calorimeter design process, students will need to test different materials to see which retains heat more effectively.  This engages students in planning and carrying out investigations (SEP 3), analyzing and interpreting data (SEP 4), and designing solutions (SEP 6).  Students are engaged in exploring thermal energy transfer and how to prevent it, addressing many core ideas in Disciplinary Core Idea PS3.B: Conservation of Energy and Energy Transfer.

Day One focuses on introducing students to the idea of a "prototype" so that they can design and build one themselves.


Links to the other three lessons in this series:

Day 2 of 4--Engineering a Calorimeter: Designing and Testing a First Prototype

Day 3 of 4--Engineering a Calorimeter: Testing and Re-designing

Day 4 of 4--Engineering a Calorimeter: Modifying and Re-testing a Prototype to Inform Final Product Build


5 minutes

While I take attendance, students do a warm-up activity in their composition Warm-Up/Reflection books.  I use warm-ups to either probe for students' prior knowledge about the day's upcoming lesson or to have them bring to mind and review what they should have learned previously, either in class or during a flipped assignment.  (To read more about Warm Up and Reflection Books or Flipping the Classroom explanation, please see the attached resources.)

Today’s Warm-Up: “What is a PROTOTYPE?”

In this case, the warm-up is asking students to think about their past experience in defining a prototype.  It is also preparing students to engage in prototype design during today’s activity.

If time permits, I walk around with a self-inking stamp to stamp the completed warm-ups indicating participation, but not necessarily accuracy.  In order to speed things up, my students have been trained to pass their books into the center of the table rows and stack them so that I can quickly pass by and stamp.  On days when there is too much business keeping, I do not stamp.  Students have been told that warm-ups are occasionally immediately checked and other times not.  At the end of each unit, Warm-Up/Reflection Books are collected and spot-checked. 

Today, I have students pass their books to the center aisle and I stamp any books that have any answer.  We will discuss at length what students determined to be a prototype during our Pre-Activity Discussion immediately following.


Pre-Activity Discussion

10 minutes

After stamping Warm-Up Books, I begin calling on students by name to share their answers to the warm-up question.  I use a common technique with names on sticks to randomly choose students.  Of course, if there are students whom I specifically want to draw into the conversation, I will call on them anyway.  

During this discussion, I want to make sure that students identify that a prototype should actually be constructed and tested.  I also want students to understand the importance of testing followed by making revisions based on test results.  I emphasize that the engineering process is a continual cycle until the end product meets all specifications as best it can.

Student Design Activity

30 minutes

I handout Prototyping -- Heat Container to each student and instruct them to read the the questions at the top and write their responses in the area indicated.  I allow about 3-4 minutes for them to write their responses before reading those questions aloud.  Then, I ask students to volunteer their answers.  If there is a shortage of volunteers, I resume cold calling.  We spend about 3-4 minutes discussing answers.  

As a transition to independent work time, I read the section of the handout that begins "Your task today..." and students are directed to brainstorm ideas for making a heat container prototype.  They are allowed to discuss ideas in pairs if it helps them to be productive, but I caution students to make sure that they stay on task.  I also point out that students should not only brainstorm potential materials to use and sketch designs, but they also need to turn over the handout and list ideas of ways to test the success of the design.  If students use any reference materials, I encourage them to list their sources.

The quality of student work I received was overall really great!  Students were encouraged to record all of their thinking.  I told them that there were no right or wrong answers at this stage and that the best ideas often come from weird and random places.  

Here are two outstanding samples (front and back sides):

Sample 1


Sample 2

In particular, I was interested in what students would come up with for testing their prototypes.  Students who were thoughtful in their answers here had a much easier time later when they had to actually test their prototypes.


Many samples mirrored these two:

Sample 3


Sample 4


I did have a few students who struggled with documenting their thoughts.  One in particular is extremely bright, but has a large language barrier.  Her work here seems sparse, but when I read what she has actually written, she has indicated appropriate potential materials (including insulators and rubber) and articulates a potential testing method that is viable.  This student performed extremely well in the following lessons, where she was working with materials hands-on and not required to complete thinking/writing exercises.

Sample 5:


Whole Class Discussion of Ideas

5 minutes

Once students have had time to flesh out their ideas, I begin a structured whole class discussion.  I ask students to share out what their ideas were for potential materials, usually followed by me asking, "Why do you think that would be a good choice?"

As more students share, I am looking to make connections between what types of materials would serve as good insulators and which materials are good conductors (thereby making them poor heat containers).

Student Reflection

5 minutes

In student's Warm-Up/Reflection Books, students should spend about 3-5 minutes writing a response to the day's reflection prompt.  Prompts are designed to either help students focus on key learning goals from the day's lesson or to prompt deeper thinking.  The responses also allow me to see if there are any students who are missing the mark in terms of understanding.  The collection of responses in the composition books can also show a progression (or lack thereof) for individual students. 

Today's Reflection Prompt:  "How are prototypes useful in designing a final product?  What benefit does having multiple prototype designs provide?”

Desired student responses should demonstrate a clear understanding that making prototypes allows engineers to test and improve products before full production is reached.  Benefits of multiple designs allows for improvement in test results and sometimes unintentional discoveries.