Lesson Plan

Building an Insulation Station

#STEMChallenge How is thermal energy transferred? What can slow it down?
Donna M.
Classroom teacher
Vista Visions Academy
Vista, CA
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My Grades 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
My Subjects Science, Health & Wellness
EdTech Mentor

Students will be able to...

  • Observe that heat flows from warmer objects to cooler ones until temperatures equalize.
  • Describe the purpose of insulation materials as they relate to heat transfer.
  • Describe the basic attributes that are common to insulation materials.
  • Describe how engineers make decisions about insulation materials.
  • Use insulation materials to minimize heat transfer.
Grades 4 - 8
All Notes
Teacher Notes
Student Notes

1 Hook

Brainstorm with the class, "What do engineers do?" After several students offer ideas, refine the question, "What do you think an Insulation and Coatings Technician does?"

After several students offer ideas, show the video from PBS Learning Media, Career Spotlight: Insulation and Coatings Technician

Questions for discussion:

  • What is geothermal energy?
  • What are some things that Samuel Weatherwax likes about his job?
  • Part of what Samuel is is apply insulation to pipes. What is the purpose of insulation?

2 Background Information

Provide students with background knowledge about thermal energy transfer by working with the Gizmo: Conduction and Convection. Teacher support materials and student sheets to help them work through the simulation are available on the site. Although Gizmos require a paid subscription, free 30 day trials are available to teachers.  After working with the simulation, students should realize that:

  • heat flows from warmer objects to cooler liquids until temperatures equalize.
  • metals are better conductors than nonmetals.
  • hot fluids tend to rise while cold fluids tend to sink.

This simulation introduces students to the concepts that lead to a better understanding of thermal energy transfer.


3 Plan

The problem students address is: As an engineer, can you apply scientific principles to design, construct, and test a device that  minimizes thermal energy transfer?

This can be taught as a Guided Inquiry Lesson by following the directions below. Alternatively, it can be taught as a more Open Inquiry Lesson by allowing students to determine how the insulating station will be built and tested. 

Students can research insulators on their own to guide them in building their own insulator.

Directions for building an Insulation Station

You can either provide students with the materials listed below or demonstrate the testing apparatus and allow students to design their own insulators. As students work collaboratively , they may use a shared Google Doc and Google Draw to record their planning and drawing of their prototype. 

Regardless of the approach taken,, students can document their work using a design cycle such as:

Define the problem

 Materials needed for the class:

  • large pitcher 
  • water 
  • several insulating materials (shredded paper, bubble wrap, cardboard, packing peanuts, sponges, cotton balls, small scraps of fabric)

For each small group 

  • 2 ice cubes 
  • 1 graduated cylinder (50 mL or larger) 
  • plastic wrap 
  • 2 large paper cups
  •  scissors 
  • ruler 
  • tape (masking or clear)  paper and pencil  1
  • incandescent lightbulb, 120 watt  1 work light with clamp (or desk lamp capable of holding a 120 watt bulb) 
  • 1 stopwatch or clock


4 Create

Directions for building an Insulation Station

Students design and create the most efficient insulator they can either with the materials the teacher provides or materials brought from home. The directions are linked above or students may create their own design. After building their Insulation  Station, they test its effectiveness by measuring the remaining water after 20 minutes.  Measuring tools such as graduated cylinders should be available. They record their data on their group's Google Doc.

5 Evaluate

Google Drive
Free, Paid

Students evaluate their Insulation Station's effectiveness, share data with other groups in the class and improve their design. They re-test and again record their data, using the design cycle as a guide:

  • Define the problem
  • Investigate
  • Plan
  • Create
  • Evaluate

Depending on the time available, students may create numerous iterations, repeating the design cycle and recording the data generated from each test.

6 Present

Google Drive
Free, Paid
Free, Paid
Free to Try, Paid

Presenting their design to the public is essential for students to receive feedback and compare designs. Students have a choice of tech tools they may use to present their insulation station. In their presentation, students detail the design process and share the data they collected.  They should be able to use evidence from their testing to make an argument for or to "sell" their design,

Student groups can compare data and determine which insulation station was the most efficient.