Design a Lunar Thermos

National Aeronautics and Space Administration NASA
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Activity , Experiment/Lab Activity , Graph , Lesson/Lesson Plan
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.


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3 Design a Lunar Thermos

Great for a GATE cluster and a group that has the materials or the $$ to buy them...


This engineering lesson is part of An Educators Guide to the Engineering Design Process Grades 3-5 created by NASA to guide students in understanding how humans can be protected from the temperature variations found on the Moon. To understand the challenge of keeping a human body at a fairly constant temperature in a space suit, students are challenged to design an insulator for a cup of hot water and a cup of cold water that can maintain a relatively constant water temperature. Following the Engineering Design Process and the science of heat and energy transfer, students work in teams to design their own Lunar Thermos.

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Grade 5
  • Grade 4
  • Grade 3
  • Upper Elementary
Access Restrictions

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

Performance Expectations

4-PS3-2 Make observations to provide evidence that energy can be transferred from place to place by sound, light, heat, and electric currents.

Clarification Statement: none

Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include quantitative measurements of energy.

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this performance expectation, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
To explore students pre-conceptions about heat energy, it is suggested to have students participate in the Mitten Problem Formative Assessment Probe ( before beginning the Lunar Thermos activity. As students explore modeling of energy transfer, they can do some modeling for better understanding. After students have investigated materials and the engineering problem of the lesson, have students pretend to be molecules that stand close together and still. As the students are asked to wiggle and move around and then jump up and down, they are demonstrating more heat energy entering their system. Did you get hotter the faster you moved? Where are you standing compared to where you started? What does this tell us about molecules? The teacher then demonstrates the glow stick in hot water and cold water activity. Are the molecules moving faster in the glow stick that is in the hot water or the glow stick in the cold water? Ask students to think about the temperature changes outside and inside their house. If it's hot outside does the heat come in? If it's cold outside does the heat from your house escape when you open the door? Heat flows in the direction that will give it equilibrium. This resource focuses on energy transfer through heat. It is suggested the teacher follow up this lesson with activities that focus on energy being transferred though sound, light and electricity to fully address this standard. More resources that use sound and electricity, such as “Circuits and Electric Light,” can be found on the NGSS Hub.

3-5-ETS1-1 Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.

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 challenged to work as a team to design an insulator for a cup of hot water and a cup of cold water that will keep the temperature as close to what it was when they started. The criteria for a successful design is a 'thermos' that does not let the heat transfer or move. The temperature should change by no more than 3 degrees Celsius. The constraints of this activity are that students are given limited materials to work with: bubble wrap, paper, cloth, sand, water, foil,or Styrofoam. Student groups are given 100 ml of hot water (from the tap) and 100 mL of cold water.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
After students have had time to conference with their group to decide what materials they will use, they design in their notebooks what their lunar thermos will look like. Students will record the temperature of the room as well as the temperature for each cup of water every 30 seconds for 5 minutes total on the Lunar Thermos Data Table. As the students collect their data, they will use these measurements as evidence to explain what is happening in their cups. Students should be reminded that a control hot and cold cup will also be in the classroom without any insulation so students can compare their results to the control. Note: There is an error on the line graph resource: one minute has been omitted.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
Prior to beginning the design process students should discuss their experience and understanding of how insulators work. Ask them how their soup stays warm all day in their lunch thermos? Why does milk stay cold in a thermos? Students need to plan and design how they will insulate the cups to keep the temperature constant. Students are only able to work with the limited materials given them by the teacher. How can they design a lunar thermos with limited materials? It is important that that the students redesign and have the opportunity to improve their design by trying other combinations of materials for trial 2.

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 the students to figure out is that heat flows in a direction to give equilibrium. Students can collaboratively discuss what happens to the heat in their house when they open the door on a cold day. Have students relate this to the cup of water they are trying to keep at a constant temperature. Should they trap the heat inside the warm cup so it cannot move or get out? What can they put on top of the cup? Is air that is confined the best insulator? What about the cold water cup? How can you keep the heat of the classroom out of the cold water cup? Have students think about how their coat helps to keep them warm, and how a spacesuit helps an astronaut stay warm. This can be linked to the Mitten Problem in the Tips above. It is suggested to remind students that hot air rises in colder air.

Crosscutting Concepts

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

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
Through questioning and answering students learn to unify the science and engineering practices with the crosscutting concept of tracking the energy flow. Energy moves out of higher temperature objects and into lower temperature ones, cooling the higher temperature and heating the lower temperature. It is suggested to have students model this concept or model it as a class.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: Through the sequence of activities from students acting as molecules to the investigation and analysis of the data from the activity, students acquire knowledge and skills in science and engineering practices. Students are given the opportunity to engage in the engineering design process through trial and error with their thermos design. Students should be given time to discuss and elaborate with their peers what is causing the temperature to increase or decrease after each trial. Students are not given explicit instructions on how to design their thermos, only what materials are available to them as they following the engineering design process. There is a strong connection to Common Core Math: measurement and data.

  • Instructional Supports: Students make sense of heat energy through questioning, testing and redesigning a 'lunar thermos' as they relate the idea of how a spacesuit works to keep an astronaut's temperature regulated. The engineering and science performance expectations work together to give students the opportunity to make sense of phenomena. Students are provided a data table and graph to collect and analyze results. It is suggested for students to more formally write a reflection of what their data means in their science journal as they connect the idea that air that is confined and cannot move will keep the temperature more constant. The teacher may also bring in more connections to the student’s own home as suggested in the tips. Also suggested is a teacher created rubric that can be introduced to the students before the challenge. This will enable the students to know what they are trying to achieve and how they will be graded on the activity. Differentiation for struggling learners and ESL students needs to be included to make the instructional supports rating even stronger.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: An Ask Image and Plan worksheet is included with this activity where students will have the opportunity to imagine and design prior to building. It is suggested that students write in their journal and reflect on what changed in trial 2 to see if they can connect what they changed to a difference in the temperature. It is suggested that students use the evidence they collect as they answer questions making claims about how well their designs worked.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: A link is included with this activity that shows how and why astronauts wear spacesuits. This resource also shares a link to explore other NASA short clips: Living on the Moon, NASA, What is an Engineer?, Repeatability, and Graphing. If the teacher plans to have the students engage in the optional graph from this activity to compare the two trials, then the clip on graphing may be a helpful tool to introduce to students an understand why NASA uses graphs to relate two things.