September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

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!

Written by Joanne Michael

Joanne Michael

Joanne Michael is a K-5 Science Specialist for Manhattan Beach Unified and is a CSTA member.

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Written by Peter AHearn

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