Feel The Heat

Design Squad WGBH Educational Foundation NASA
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Activity , Experiment/Lab Activity , Instructor Guide/Manual
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be “fully aligned,” the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.



In Feel the Heat, students follow the engineering design process to build a solar hot water heater and redesign their device to see how big a temperature change they can get by changing different variables. The phenomenon of energy transfer can be a challenging concept for upper elementary students, however, this activity provides the students with the opportunity to use their investigation data to improve their heater to increase the temperature of the water.  This lesson contains elements that are appropriate for middle school(convection/conduction/radiation), but the basic premise of the lesson, that solar energy can be used to heat water, is appropriate for upper elementary. Teachers can decide to use a gooseneck lamp with an indoor 100-watt floodlight as the energy source for the student water devices (safely precautions tips included), or they can choose to work outside with the sun as the natural energy source.


Intended Audience

Educator and learner
Educational Level
  • Grade 4
  • Grade 6
  • Grade 5
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

3-5-ETS1-3 Plan and carry out fair tests in which variables are controlled and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved.

Clarification Statement: none

Assessment Boundary: none

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
Students are encouraged to change and redesign their water systems to get the temperature to increase from the first cup to the second cup after it flows through the tube. It is suggested that students have prior experience with variables and understand how changing one variable at a time may show or not show it's effect on the water. It is also suggested that students keep a formal log of what was changed each time they took the water's temperature. They could use stop watches to time how long the water took to go through the system. Did the speed affect the water temperature? Should you make the tubes longer so the water has more time to be in the sunlight? Does a white background vs a black background change the temperature of the water? What would happen if you put aluminum foil around the device?

4-PS3-4 Apply scientific ideas to design, test, and refine a device that converts energy from one form to another.

Clarification Statement: Examples of devices could include electric circuits that convert electrical energy into motion energy of a vehicle, light, or sound; and, a passive solar heater that converts light into heat. Examples of constraints could include the materials, cost, or time to design the device.

Assessment Boundary: Devices should be limited to those that convert motion energy to electric energy or use stored energy to cause motion or produce light or sound.

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
Students will be building on K-2 experiences where they made observations to determine the effect of sunlight on Earth's surface as well as building structures that reduce the warming effect of sunlight on an area (K-PS3). In this activity, students will be relating how NASA uses solar powered heating on the moon to how they can use sun's energy to heat water on Earth. They will be making a water heater with the goal of seeing how big a temperature change they can get from the beginning to the end. To more fully address the performance expectation, it is suggested that students explore the scientific ideas behind solar radiation and its transfer of energy to the Earth's surface via sunlight. Students may find this Bill Nye video of how the sun coverts energy to electricity helpful: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=av24fEMhDoU

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this science and engineering practice, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
Scientists and engineers plan and carry out investigations to help them solve problems and find out what data is important. It is suggested to best meet this practice, students keep a formal journal where they explicitly write down the temperature of the water before and after each trial. They are encouraged to change variables one at a time, record their data, and analyze which worked best to increase the temperature of the water.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
The students need to be given time to optimize their design to best meet the criteria of the problem: To design their hot water heater and see how big of a temperature change they can get by changing different variables.

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
The big idea for students to understand in this activity is that a solar device can convert light into heat. As the students measure the temperature before the water goes into the first cup, and then record the temperature after it processes through their water device, they need to be given the opportunity to reflect on why this happened. How can they make the temperature warmer before it gets to the second cup? Is there a way to make the process go more slowly, giving the water more time to heat up? The concepts of convection, conduction, and radiation, which are included in this lesson, go beyond grade 4 expectations, therefore it is recommended teachers focus on a discussion of how the energy is transferred from the sun to the water. Although the three ways heat moves around the universe: conduction, convection, radiation are not addressed until middle school, upper elementary students may find this Crash Course Kids video helpful: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6FB0rDsR_rc

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
It is important for the students to formally record in their science journal their reasoning of the result of each design change as they redesign and change variables in their experiment. It is suggested that the students reflect on this in writing in addition to peer discussion to best meet this crosscutting concept.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: The three dimensions work together to support students to make sense of the phenomenon of energy transfer. Students are provided the opportunity to develop and use the engineering and science practices to make sense of a design solution. To more fully align this resource to the NGSS, the teacher might wish to modify the lab sheet so that it does not supply the student with specific ways to modify the temperature, but lets the students brainstorm what they would like to change and how they believe that the change will increase the temperature. Modification is needed for the concepts of conduction, convection, and radiation which are addressed in the tips.

  • Instructional Supports: This resource engages students in authentic and meaningful scenarios as they apply what they are learning about solar energy to an astronaut's need to use the steady supply of sunlight to heat their water, lunar outposts and other structures. This resource gives examples of possible solutions the students may face as they redesign their water heaters. It is suggested that students are not given the answers but are guided though questioning. Extended challenges are addressed as well as side notes of NASA missions that correlate with this activity.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: Formative questioning is embedded throughout the activity that gives evidence for three-dimensional learning. It is suggested that the teacher create a rubric for the students to guide them in their learning as well as create a formal graph or worksheet where they can record the temperature of the water before it entered the device and after it came out. The students will also need a place in their science journal to reflect on what variables they changed and the effect this had on the water temperature.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: There is one reference included to view the PBS NOVA program Saved by the Sun, that outlines innovative ways that solar energy is being used to provide heat energy and power. pbs.org/wgbh/nova/solar/