Save the Penguins

Christine Schnittka
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Lesson/Lesson Plan , Unit
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.


Average Rating

3 (2 reviews)

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Most Recent Review

3 Good engineering design, weak concept development

This unit provides a novel engineering design task. However, the development of the science concepts that are needed for the design task depends overly on rote instruction and does not provide enough depth of understanding of the mechanism of heat transfer for students to use in design. For example, students should develop a model for heat transfer by collisions and use that to determine which materials will slow down heat transfer. The unit should use a computer simulation of heat transfer by particle collisions to accompany the hand holding simulation and allow students to visualize heat transfer mechanisms. The unit needs revision to meet the NGSS ideas about solutions to problems driving student learning. Also, merely telling students that they have a misconception and what the correct conception is is unlikely to resolve the misconception. Pedagogy is weak in this unit.


In this series of 5 lessons, students first build up a background knowledge of thermal energy transfer, distinguishing heat from temperature. They then investigate the insulative properties of various materials. They use this background learning to design a structure (igloo) to keep an ice cube (penguin) from melting. The lesson relates this to a climate change, in that penguins will lose habitat, though climate change learning is tangential here. The emphasis is on an engineering design process, where the class discusses results of students’ tests of their designs, and groups have an opportunity to redesign their solution.

The lessons provide a lot of details about common student misconceptions regarding heat and temperature and ideas for moving their conceptual understanding forward.

The materials can also be found at

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Grade 8
  • Grade 7
  • Grade 6
  • Middle School
Access Restrictions

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

Performance Expectations

MS-ETS1-3 Analyze data from tests to determine similarities and differences among several design solutions to identify the best characteristics of each that can be combined into a new solution to better meet the criteria for success.

Clarification Statement: none

Assessment Boundary: none

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

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
In lesson 5, the class discusses the designs and test results from each group in order to inform an improved re-design of students’ “igloos.” Teachers should expand the class discussion to ensure the class and student groups are specifically reflecting on the best design characteristics of the various solutions. That reflection should show up in their storyboarding and be part of the justification for the new solution they create. While it may be apparent that the key criteria for success is preventing melting for as long as possible, teachers will need to explicitly help students see that as the “criteria” within the engineering design framework.

MS-PS3-3 Apply scientific principles to design, construct, and test a device that either minimizes or maximizes thermal energy transfer.

Clarification Statement: Examples of devices could include an insulated box, a solar cooker, and a Styrofoam cup.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include calculating the total amount of thermal energy transferred.

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

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
In lessons 4 and 5 of this unit, students design, construct, and test a device to minimize thermal energy transfer from the lamps to the penguin/ice, with a goal of minimizing melting. The lesson talks a lot about heat as the transfer of thermal energy. Teachers should ensure that students begin to use this language of energy transfer in their discourse and the storyboarding (basically notebooking on a poster) of their work.

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
The aim of the first three lessons is to understand thermal energy transfer and the properties of materials that help prevent that transfer. Students are expected to apply those scientific ideas and principles to their designs, but they often have a difficult time making those connections. They often just want to experiment and see what works, basing ideas on past experiences rather than scientific understanding. While that’s valid in engineering and can be encouraged, they should also be justifying design choices through the science they’ve learned. Those justifications should be written out as part of the process.

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
Students test the insulating capacity of various materials in order to first develop their solution. After developing and testing their solution, and learning about the testing of other groups’ solutions, they modify their solutions based on data on which solution elements yielded the best test results. It’s important that teachers have students actually go through and redesign their solutions in order to fully implement authentic engineering practice. Redesign shouldn't be considered an "optional" add-on in engineering lesson, done only if there's time. While this lesson does encourage redesign, it doesn’t provide as much guidance about the redesign as it could.

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

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
This series of lessons focuses on the transfer of thermal energy and student misconceptions about heat and temperature. They specifically suggest modeling this transfer from hot particles to colder particles in a kinesthetic activity with students wiggling and starting others sequentially in a line wiggling as they’re bumped. The lesson provides many prompts to help students understand this energy transfer as they do background research and design their solution. The idea of this energy transfer being “spontaneous” is not as clear in the lesson and could be further emphasized.

Crosscutting Concepts

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

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
The lesson talks about transfers of thermal energy (heat), and insulators preventing that, but it doesn’t talk about the full system. In this design process and initial activities, heat is a type of energy flowing within this system, which is the full test set-up with lamps, ice, insulating structure, and container. The idea of a designed “system” could be more explicitly discussed, especially in relating this investigation and design activity to the natural systems involved with climate change.

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

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
As students design their solutions (igloos) to keep the ice penguin from melting, they should consider both the properties of the selected materials, and how they shape the materials. This lesson emphasizes properties more than the shape, though it does have students noting than an attic space in a house-like structure gets very hot. They’re introduced to the idea that warm air masses are less dense than cold air masses and thus rise. Teachers should ensure that students are tapping into that understanding as they shape their materials. For example, students might justify using a tent-like structure because it will allow warmer air to move up above the ice. Teachers could ask, why are you shaping the materials like this? How will that prevent thermal energy transfer to the ice?

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: This series of lessons aligns well to the three-dimensions of the NGSS. Students learn about a particular phenomenon (thermal energy transfer) and use that understanding to solve an engineering problem (keep a ice cube penguin from melting). There is an intent to extend the learning by relating it to climate change, but that seems tangential at best. The engineering work of lessons 3-5 aligns well to the science and engineering practices, but the introductory lessons where students gain science background could better align to the practices. For example, students could be asked to determine what data would be important to collect and design their own data tables, they could design an experiment to determine which materials are the best insulators, and they could be asked more often to come up with their own questions about the phenomena being observed.

  • Instructional Supports: There are several instructional resources provided. First, there are great questions and guidance about student misconceptions throughout the extensive teacher guide. They really help show how to facilitate this lesson well. There are also a couple video clips, one of students doing the work and one from a professional development session describing use of the materials. The website includes a link where people can buy a kit of materials if needed, though all materials are readily available at a big-box type store. The materials include Power Point presentations to support discussion and learning, and a lot of background information is provided on the topic for teachers. In describing the student activity, the materials note common student errors or hang-ups to watch out for.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: The summative assessment is a very useful tool for assessing knowledge of heat transfer concepts, as it connects well to student misconceptions. But, it doesn’t reflect the NGSS practices and crosscutting concepts. The engineering project and “storyboard” idea (basically a poster-based notebooking) do connect to crosscutting concepts and practices, but there is no rubric or guidance provided for assessing those dimensions.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: The author provides an iBook of the unit and a short video of students engaged in the activity, but there is no technological interactivity.