Thermal Protection- Science with Blowtorches!
Posted: Wednesday, December 10th, 2014
by Joanne Cozens Michael
STEM… the final frontier. Okay, not really, but it is our students’ future and it is up to us to get them as prepared as possible. One of the issues many educators face when teaching STEM is finding something that can cover multiple strands of the STEM “rope”. A few years ago, I attended Space Camp for Educators in Huntsville, Alabama, and was introduced to an amazing lesson sure to inspire engineering and creativity, get those STEM juices flowing, and captivate even the most reluctant of learners!
The lab is called “Thermal Protection”. The basic idea is to protect a screw that is hot-glued onto a wooden dowel from getting so hot that the glue melts, and the screw falls off. Protecting it from what? A blowtorch! I primarily do this with 5th grade students because my school goes up to 5th grade, but it can be done with students as young as 3rd grade. A colleague does this with his high school seniors- everyone loves it! It can also definitely be done as part of a family science night with parents helping.
Before the students arrive, you will need to prep the dowels. A dowel ½-inch in diameter works well, and only needs to be six inches long. Place a drop of hot glue on one end, and stick a screw, flat side-down, into the glue. The type of screw doesn’t really matter, but it shouldn’t be longer than two or three inches. You will also need to assemble some “protection materials”: non-insulated copper wire, aluminum foil, tin foil (if available), and any other metals that are (relatively) easy to shape or cut a hole into. I normally prep my aluminum foil for my students by cutting it into strips about four inches long by however wide the roll of foil is. The wire can be any length. You will also need to have some way to hold the dowel while the blowtorch is being used. A ring-stand from the high school chemistry department works beautifully, and most have a screw-clamp on them that will hold the dowel without issue. The clamp will need to be positioned about 2/3 of the way up the stand, and when the dowel is in place, the torch’s flame is about four inches from the screw – hot enough to cause the heat to radiate quickly from the flame to the screw, and melt the glue, but not so hot that it would cause injury or danger to anyone. I place newspapers down on the table that the stand is on and then a large piece of aluminum over them, to protect the table from melted glue or bits of metal that may fall off.
To introduce the lab, I show them footage of a NASA rocket launch and explain that in order to get the rocket up past Earth’s atmosphere, it obviously has to have an incredible amount of thrust that can only be attained by a chemical reaction producing insane amounts of heat as a by-product. The payload inside can have humans, food, various experiments, oxygen tanks, or other vital things that need to stay protected at a certain temperature, but the outside must be strong enough to withstand the launch, any meteorites or space debris that it may come into contact with, and be able to survive re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. Metal has proven to be one of the best materials to use. From there, I bring out the ring stand, with a dowel/screw already attached, but no protection on the screw. I place the blowtorch in the correct spot, and have a student time how long it takes for the glue to get so hot that the screw falls off. That number is the benchmark for the class. The time is generally 30 seconds or so (not too long of a time!).
From that point, their mission is simple: using the various metals, create a “thermal shield” to protect the glue from heating up too quickly. This could very easily become a unit project in which students can research the heat conductivity of the various metals used, the best order of the metals to be placed on the screw, if certain metals should not be used at all, and/or the shape that best reflects the heat. They can weigh the materials, and use that data against the rest of the class’ data.
The highlight is obviously testing day. I set a time limit for how long the torch is on the dowel of three minutes, just to make sure we can get through all of the experiments in one session. The students that succeed over the baseline are deemed “thermal champions”, while the others can have a chance to improve their time. Depending on how your class/unit is structured you can have the students go back and reengineer their thermal protection. For example, they might alter the order of metals, shape of metals (was it better concave or convex? Folded over, or a single sheet? Crumpled up in a ball?).
One of the many reasons why I love this lesson is that it gives every single student the chance to be a star in front of their peers. It is generally pretty easy to reach the baseline time. The only exception I have experienced is when they’ve placed so much “protection” on their screw that it is too heavy, and just a little bit of heat is enough to pull the screw off – another engineering lesson in itself! I have had students that struggle to comprehend lessons on a daily basis just soar in this activity- to see their faces shine brighter and brighter as they see the seconds, and then minutes, tick by, and their screw holding steady under the intense heat of the blowtorch. It is these kinds of experiences that give students the encouragement they need to pursue other STEM activities, and possibly a future career. And all from using a blowtorch in class!
Posted: Tuesday, March 14th, 2017
The pre-publication version of the new California Science Curriculum Framework is now available for download. This publication incorporates all the edits that were approved by the State Board of Education in November 2016 and was many months in the making. Our sincere thanks to the dozens of CSTA members were involved in its development. Our appreciation is also extended to the California Department of Education, the State Board of Education, the Instructional Quality Commission, and the Science Curriculum Framework and Evaluation Criteria Committee and their staff for their hard work and dedication to produce this document and for their commitment to the public input process. To the many writers and contributors to the Framework CSTA thanks you for your many hours of work to produce a world-class document.
For tips on how to approach this document see our article from December 2016: California Has Adopted a New Science Curriculum Framework – Now What …? If you would like to learn more about the Framework, consider participating in one of the Framework Launch events (a.k.a. Rollout #4) scheduled throughout 2017.
The final publication version (formatted for printing) will be available in July 2017. This document will not be available in printed format, only electronically.
Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017
The 2017 Award Season is now open! One of the benefits of being a CSTA member is your eligibility for awards as well as your eligibility to nominate someone for an award. CSTA offers several awards and members may nominate individuals and organizations for the Future Science Teacher Award, the prestigious Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, and the CSTA Distinguished Contributions Award (organizational award). May 9, 2017 is the deadline for nominations for these awards. CSTA believes that the importance of science education cannot be overstated. Given the essential presence of the sciences in understanding the past and planning for the future, science education remains, and will increasingly be one of the most important disciplines in education. CSTA is committed to recognizing and encouraging excellence in science teaching through the presentation of awards to science educators and organizations who have made outstanding contributions in science education in the state and who are poised to continue the momentum of providing high quality, relevant science education into the future. Learn More…
Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017
CSTA is now accepting applications from regular, preservice, and retired members to serve on our volunteer committees! CSTA’s all-volunteer board of directors invites you to consider maximizing your member experience by volunteering for CSTA. CSTA committee service offers you the opportunity to share your expertise, learn a new skill, or do something you love to do but never have the opportunity to do in your regular day. CSTA committee volunteers do some pretty amazing things: Learn More…
Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017
by Marian Murphy-Shaw
If you attended an NGSS Rollout phase 1-3 or CDE workshops at CSTA’s annual conference you may recall hearing from Chris Breazeale when he was working with the CDE. Chris has relocated professionally, with his passion for science education, and is now the Executive Director at the Explorit Science Center, a hands-on exploration museum featuring interactive STEM exhibits located at the beautiful Mace Ranch, 3141 5th St. in Davis, CA. Visitors can “think it, try it, and explorit” with a variety of displays that allow visitors to “do science.” To preview the museum, or schedule a classroom visit, see www.explorit.org. Learn More…
Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017
by Joseph Calmer
Probably like you, NGSS has been at the forefront of many department meetings, lunch conversations, and solitary lesson planning sessions. Despite reading the original NRC Framework, the Ca Draft Frameworks, and many CSTA writings, I am still left with the question: “what does it actually mean for my classroom?”
I had an eye-opening experience that helped me with that question. It came out of a conversation that I had with a student teacher. It turns out that I’ve found the secret to learning how to teach with NGSS: I need to engage in dialogue about teaching with novice teachers. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching science in some capacity for 12 years. During that time pedagogy and student learning become sort of a “hidden curriculum.” It is difficult to plan a lesson for the hidden curriculum; the best way is to just have two or more professionals talk and see what emerges. I was surprised it took me so long to realize this epiphany. Learn More…