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Lesson: What Is Heat?

Contributed by: RESOURCE GK-12 Program, College of Engineering, University of California Davis

Quick Look

Grade Level: 6 (5-7)

Time Required: 3 hours
(Three 60-minute class periods)

Lesson Dependency : None

Subject Areas: Physical Science

Students learn about
the de nition of heat as
a form of energy and
how it exists in everyday
life. They learn about
the three types of heat
convection and
The fan inside this CPU is one example of why heat is so important to engineering and the design of radiation—as well as the
engineered systems, as well as our everyday lives. connection between
heat and insulation.
Their learning is aided by teacher-led class demonstrations on thermal energy and conduction. A PowerPoint®
presentation and quiz are provided. This prepares students for the associated activity in which they experiment
with and measure what they learned in the lesson by designing and testing insulated bottles.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection
Understanding heat transfer is essential knowledge for the engineering of mechanical, chemical and biological
systems. Design of internal combustion engines, air conditioning and heating systems, chemical and biological
reactors and even clothing technology requires an understanding of heat transfer. Design of insulating materials
for homes, buildings and even beverage containers also requires an understanding of heat transfer.

Pre-Req Knowledge
A familiarity with basic concepts about energy and its di erent forms, as well as a basic understanding of

Learning Objectives
After this lesson, students should be able to:

Explain that heat is the ow of energy from hot materials to cold materials.
Describe that molecules in a material begin to vibrate (or move) more quickly when the material is heated.
Identify conduction as heat transfer within and between solids.
Identify convection as heat transfer involving gases or liquids.
Identify radiation as heat transfer carried by little packets of energy that can travel through almost any
material—even empty space.
List examples of each type of heat transfer.
Educational Standards
 NGSS: Next Generation Science Standards - Science
 Common Core State Standards - Math
 International Technology and Engineering Educators Association - Technology
 California - Science

Raise your hand if you ever put on a jacket? Or turned on a heater? Or melted an ice cube in your hand? (Expect
every student to raise his/her hand.)

You probably appreciate heat on a cold day. But today, and over the next couple of days, we are going to talk
about how scientists and engineers think about heat.

Lesson Background and Concepts for Teachers

Demonstration Materials: A few simple and powerful demonstrations are suggested for this lesson. A thermal
energy demonstration requires two transparent containers that are capable of holding hot water, plus hot water,
ice water and a few drops of food coloring. The conduction demonstration requires one candle, matches three
small nails/thumb tacks, an oven mitt, and a hacksaw blade or metal rod (not stainless steel). An additional quick
conduction demonstration requires ve to 10 in ated balloons. Demo preparation and presentation instructions
are provided on the slides and notes of slides 4 and 14.

The Additional Background Material section (below) provides a very detailed discussion about heat. While this
material is generally above the sixth-grade level, it presents key background information for the teacher so s/he is
able to answer advanced student questions.

Use the 21-slide What Is Heat? Presentation, a Microsoft PowerPoint® le, to directly deliver the lesson content,
using the guidance provided below; alternatively, use the presentation to inform other teaching methods. Note
that each slide includes background and discussion information in the notes sections that is not provided below
and is unavailable in the PDF version. In addition, the slides are animated, so clicking brings up the next text or
component on the slide.

(Slide 1) What is heat? Do the images on this slide give you any hints? Heat is energy that has something to do
with temperature and is an important concept used by engineers to design many of the products we use every

(Slide 2) Open a discussion about what will happen to the temperature of the beverage in each case (hot
chocolate, iced tea) when left unattended for 30 minutes. Why do some things get warmer while other things get
colder when they are left out? Given time, both eventually become room temperature. The hot drink releases
energy; the cold drink absorbs energy.

(Slide 3) Remind students about energy and some of its di erent forms. Expect them to recall that moving objects
have kinetic energy. Show the animation to help visualize the relationship between temperature and kinetic

(Slide 4) Conduct a class demonstration to show temperature and kinetic energy using food coloring: Prepare
separate transparent cups of hot and cold water (ice water is best; remove the ice for the demo). Into each cup,
place a drop of food coloring and direct students to observe what happens. Expect them to notice that the food
coloring in the hot water spreads out more quickly than that in the cold water. It is helpful to repeat this
experiment after explaining the mechanism. Alternative: If conducting this demo is not possible, show a 2:52-
minute video, "Moving Water Molecules," at the website location provided in the Additional Multimedia Support

(Slide 5) Talk about what students observed in the demo. The faster jiggling hot water dispersed the dye more
quickly. Then show the animation of Brownian Motion at We can think of the small dots as water
molecules, and the yellow dot as a much larger dye molecule being bounced around by the water molecules'
thermal jiggling. This was discovered by Scottish botanist Robert Brown, who used a microscope to look at pollen
samples in water. He could not see the water molecules, but noticed that pollen in hotter water jiggled around
more than in colder water. The phenomenon was named in his honor: Brownian Motion.

(Slide 6) Make the point that thermal energy is in everything—even if it is something we consider cold.

(Slide 7) Explain the de nition of heat as owing thermal energy and clarify the direction of heat ow—from the
hotter object to the cooler object. Energy transfers always occur from higher to lower states of energy.

(Slides 8-13) Use the provided images of a hot cup of co ee, an ice cream cone and a tea kettle on a burner as
examples to talk about the direction of heat ow. Have students draw arrows to show the direction of heat ow;
circulate around the room to verify their understanding. Make sure students realize that 1) heat is a form of
energy that is transferred by a di erence in temperature; a di erence in temperature is needed for heat to ow,
2) heat always ows from hot to cold, or more precisely, heat ows from higher temperature to lower
temperature, and 3) the units of heat are Joules, just like kinetic energy. The three di erent types of heat transfer
(the movement of thermal energy) are conduction, convection and radiation. The "thought experiments" on slide
13 using the examples of hot soup and snowballs give students practice in using correct terminology and full
sentences to explain how heat ows. Make sure students are able to realize that no heat transfer occurs between
objects of the same temperature.

(Slide 14) Introduce the rst type of heat transfer, conduction, which is heat transfer within or between solid
objects. With our hands, we experience heat transfer by conduction any time we touch something that is hotter
or colder than our skin.

At this point, present a conduction demonstration that you have prepared in advance. Before the activity, use
drops of candle wax to "glue" two or three small nails or thumb tacks to a hacksaw blade or metal rod. Space the
nails about 1 inch apart, with the rst one located one to two inches from the end of the blade/rod. Hold the
other end of the blade/rod with an oven mitt or nail it to a block of wood. Heat the end of the rod with a candle
ame. As heat conducts down, the wax holding the nails melts and drops the nails, one by one, in sequence. This
shows students the heat traveling down the rod.

Then conduct another class demonstration on heat conduction. Give each of ve to 10 student volunteers an
in ated balloon and have them hold them together, touching, in a line. Start to jiggle one end of the line and
observe how this jiggling travels down the line of balloons.

(Slides 15-19) Introduce and go over the other two ways heat can move from one object to another: convection
and radiation. Each slide starts with a discussion and examples and then gives a de nition that can be used for
building students' vocabulary.

(Slide 20) Introduce the concept of insulation, which is important in heat transfer and necessary background to
understand the associated activity. Besides the oven mitt and pop can cozy, other examples of insulation include
the walls and roof of houses, multi-pane windows, beverage thermos, insulation around car engines to keep
passengers cool, inside a jet engine, material on the outside of the space shuttle, plastic casing on wires, a
sweater or jacket, and refrigerator and oven walls.

(Slide 21) Wrap up with a brief review of key terms: heat, conduction, convection, radiation, insulation, and that
heat ows from hot (or higher temperature) to cold (or lower temperature).

Additional Background Material

Heat in Engineering: Heat is the ow of thermal energy that arises from temperature di erences. Whenever two
things of di erent temperatures are near one another, thermal energy ows. This owing energy is called heat.
The fans heard whirring in computers are designed to remove heat generated by the electronics. Without these
fans, computers would melt or create res. On a winter morning, we put on coats to stay warm. Heat and how it
ows within and between objects is something we experience every day and a fundamental engineering concern.

Thermal Energy and Heat: Every object in the universe has thermal energy stored within it. Thermal energy is
the energy embodied in the vibrations, rotations and translations of atoms and molecules. This motion is
extremely fast, signi cantly faster than indicated in the animations typically shown, and signi cantly faster than
bulk translation (such as the ow of water molecules in a river). Expect the presence of energy in a system of
jiggling, bouncing, molecules to be very obvious to students who already understand the concept of kinetic
energy; indeed, the underlying physical mechanism is similar.
The energy contained in thermal "jiggling" is a function of many factors such as the mass of the particles and the
speed of their motion. However, for a given material, faster molecular movement means more thermal energy is

Thermal energy is almost impossible to con ne to a location. Rather, it can be causally observed every day. A cup
of tea left on the counter cools o . Touching a hot pot lid burns one's hand. Objects that are in thermal contact
tend towards thermal equilibrium, that is, they exchange thermal energy until both objects have the same
temperature. When thermal energy moves around, the owing thermal energy is called heat. This is somewhat
confused by the engineering terminology of "heat transfer" (the study of just how that heat is moved around),
which is somewhat redundant since the word "heat" already conveys the motion of thermal energy. In this
document, "heat," "heat ow" and "heat transfer" all mean the ow of thermal energy.

One common example of thermal equilibrium is a cup of hot tea. Thermal energy in hot tea will ow (as heat) into
the air because the tea temperature is higher than the air temperature. Heat leaving the tea causes the tea's
temperature to decrease. Heat going into the air causes the air's temperature to increase. This process continues
until the temperature of the tea and air is exactly the same, that is, until thermal equilibrium has been reached
and no more impetus exists for thermal energy to move as heat. This is discussed further in the presentation
using the analogy of a skier on a hill.

The mechanism of heat ow can be understood by remembering thermal "jiggling." Imagine placing a room
temperature pot on a hot stove. Initially, the pot is 25 °C while the cooking element might be 600 °C. We know
that heat is owing from the element to the pot, because the pot's temperature increases. If we had a su ciently
powerful microscope, we could observe the atoms in the element and the pot. The lower temperature pot atoms
would be jiggling around much more slowly than the atoms in the element. Since the two are touching, eventually
a vigorously jiggling element atom collides with a slower jiggling pot atom. Just as a fast-moving cue ball collides
with an eight ball and transfers some of its kinetic energy, the element transfers its thermal energy to the pot
through countless such collisions.

The following is a very subtle point. The slowly jiggling pot atoms in the previous example might collide with the
swiftly jiggling element atoms and transfer some kinetic energy FROM THE POT TO THE ELEMENT. This is quite
the opposite from the established direction of heat transfer, that is, from high temperature to low temperature
(or "hot to cold" in the easier-to-repeat shorthand phrase). Although this "opposite" mechanism may occur in
isolated interactions, averaging the ow of heat over billions and billions of collisions always results in the "hot to
cold" direction with which we are all familiar. Thermal equilibrium is reached when these collisions (again on
average) involve the same amount of energy owing into and out of the pot. At this point, both items are at the
same temperature, and heat ceases to ow. Along these lines, "cold" is not a substance that ows. What happens
when holding an icy soda can is NOT "cold owing into my hand." The person holding the can experiences the
sensation of a cold hand because the thermal energy in the hand has owed, as heat, into the lower temperature
soda can and given enough time, the two reach thermal equilibrium.

Types of Heat: Heat ows from objects of higher temperature to objects of lower temperature, and occurs in
three forms, referred to by engineers as heat transfer: conduction, convection and radiation.

Conduction is heat ow in or between solid objects. If one touched the top edge of the pot in a previously
described example, s/he would be burned. It is well known that heat ows from the bottom of a pot and into the
upper edge, lid and handle. The mechanism of this heat ow is just as described in the pot and element example.
Atoms in the bottom of the pot are jiggled by the hotter element atoms. The "front line" pot atoms then collide
with their neighbors and then the next neighbors, eventually transferring thermal energy all through the pot.

A cast iron pan, left on the stove long enough, requires an oven mitt to handle. Heat ows from the element, into
the pan, up the edge and along the handle. A pan with a wooden or plastic handle does not su er from this
problem because those materials have much lower thermal conductivity (the materials property that describes
how well something conducts thermal energy) than the iron pot handle. Insulators such as wool, wood and
Styrofoam have low thermal conductivity and are useful for slowing the ow of heat. Materials with high thermal
conductivity such as copper, aluminum and glass are used to help heat move more quickly. As evidenced in the
choice of materials used for electrical conductors and insulators, most materials with high electrical conductivity
also have high thermal conductivity.

Convection is the ow of heat in gases or liquids; both are called " uids" by engineers. A hair drier provides an
excellent example of convection. Just as in the stove element, a piece of metal inside a hair drier is heated with
electricity. Imagine if no fans were included inside hair driers. The air molecules near the hot elements atoms
would be collided with, and heat would ow into them. In the case of the solid pot, the pot atoms are prevented
from large movements because the pot is a solid. The pot atoms might jiggle and vibrate, but cannot go ying o
across the room (unless heated to a very high temperature indeed). In the hair drier, the gaseous air molecules
are much freer to move. They do this naturally in a process called free convection, which can be described by the
familiar mechanism of "hot air rises." The rising hot air allows fresh cold air molecules to come into contact with
the hot element atoms. Forced convection is what occurs in the hair drier—a fan blows high-speed air molecules
over the hot element. In both cases of convection, the jiggling air molecules continue their jiggling when pushed
away from the element. Depending on how fast the new air molecules are pushed past the element, convection
can move heat over much larger distances, and much more quickly than conduction. The best remedy for a
burned nger is to put it under owing tap water. The subtleties of forced vs. free convection are beyond the
scope of a sixth-grade class. The presentation simply refers to all heat transfer in liquids and gases as convection,
with examples of the simpler fan-driven forced convection provided.

Radiation is the ow of heat carried by little packets of energy called photons. Radiation can transfer heat
between two objects even in empty space, which is how the energy from the Sun gets to Earth. Although radiation
does not need air to travel, it can travel through gases, liquids and even some solids. The cause of radiation is
fairly complex. When a charged particle is accelerated, it emits a bit of radiation called a photon. Everything in the
universe emits radiation because thermal energy causes electrons to accelerate and emit radiation (everything in
the universe has some thermal energy). The amount of radiation an object emits is proportional to its
temperature to the fourth power, so radiation is the dominant form of heat transfer only at fairly high
temperatures. Just as before, the mechanism of heat ow through radiation can be imagined with the billiard ball
collision example (although this is not as accurate an explanation of the underlying physics with radiation, it
su ces). A photon from a high-temperature object strikes an atom in a lower-temperature object, causing it to
jiggle more, raising the cooler object's temperature. Just as with the aside in the original pot/element discussion,
some subtlety exists. Since all objects (even -400 °F comets) emit some radiation, an ice cube next to a red hot
piece of iron is transferring energy from itself to the iron through radiation. But, for every one photon from the
ice cube that strikes an iron atom, many thousands of photons transfer heat from the iron to the ice. So, on
average, heat ows from hot to cold.

All three forms of heat ow occur at the same time, though some typically dominate, which permits engineers to
ignore the others. Blowing a large fan over a 100 °C piece of metal involves almost entirely convection, but a little
conduction (into the ground say) and a little radiation (heating the walls of the room) does occur.

Vocabulary/De nitions
conduction: Heat transfer within or between solid objects.
convection: Heat transfer into or out of uids.
heat: Thermal energy that ows due to a di erence in temperature. Heat ows from hot to cold.
heat transfer: A method by which heat ows (conduction, convection, radiation).
insulation: A material that slows down heat transfer.
radiation: Heat transfer due to packets of energy called photons that can travel through many substances, even
empty space.

Associated Activities
Keep It Hot! - Student teams design insulated beverage bottles. The challenge is to determine what
materials and material thicknesses work best at insulating the hot water inside a bottle for as long as
possible. Students test their designs in still air and under a stream of moving air from a house fan.

Lesson Closure
(After the associated activity) We have discussed that heat is simply the ow of thermal energy that always goes
from ________ to ________. (Expect everyone to chant out loud "from hot to cold.") We also know the three ways
that heat can be transferred, which are _____________. (Answer: Conduction, convection and radiation.) Now,
putting it all together and using what we understand about insulators, write and explain one way you can stay
cool in the summertime and one way you can keep warm in the wintertime.
What Is Heat? Presentation (pptx)
What Is Heat? Presentation (pdf)
What Is Heat? Post-Quiz (docx)
What Is Heat? Post-Quiz (pdf)
What Is Heat? Post-Quiz Answer Key (docx)
What Is Heat? Post-Quiz Answer Key (pdf)

Pre-Lesson Assessment

Class Discussion & Assignment: To get students thinking about heat, lead a discussion and present a few
everyday examples of heat, such as hot beverages, grabbing hot pans or touching ice cubes. Ask students to write
a few sentences about how temperature and energy might be related. Also have each student draw an example
of an everyday hot object. Provide a list of some examples: hot cocoa, a coal from a re and a pan right out of the
oven. Then ask students to draw a cold object near the hot one. This might be an ice cube, a can of soda from the
refrigerator or cold air. Then ask students to draw arrows in their pictures that show what direction the energy
ows (from the hot to the cold object, regardless of orientation).

Post-Introduction Assessment

Drawing Arrows: Use slide 8 of the What Is Heat? Presentation as an example and then have each student work
individually during slides 9-11 to identify the direction of heat transfer by drawing arrows and writing a sentence.
Circulate the room to verify and/or correct their understanding of the concepts.

Lesson Summary Assessment

Post-Quiz: After the lesson, and before starting the associated activity, administer the 10-question What Is Heat?
Post-Quiz. Review students' answers to assess their comprehension of the thermal energy concepts.


Written Examples: As part of the Lesson Closure after completing the associated activity, assign students to write
and explain one way they can stay cool in the summertime and one way they can keep warm in the wintertime.
Require that they use scienti c terminology as part of their explanations.

Additional Multimedia Support

As an alternative to the thermal energy class demo, show this 2:52-minute video, "Moving Water Molecules" as a
good illustration of the same demonstration:

Nadia Richards, Du Harrold, Brendan Higgins, Travis Smith

© 2014 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2013 University of California Davis

Supporting Program
RESOURCE GK-12 Program, College of Engineering, University of California Davis

The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed by the Renewable Energy Systems Opportunity for
Uni ed Research Collaboration and Education (RESOURCE) project in the College of Engineering under National
Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. DGE 0948021. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the
policies of the National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal
Last modi ed: March 8, 2018