Infrared Gallery: NASA/PBS

PBS Learning Media NASA Jet Propulsion Lab
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Image/Image Set , Phenomenon
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.



This is an interactive image set and video set depicting 11 objects with both traditional photography and infrared photography. The infrared images show cold objects in the purple-to-black color range, while hotter objects show up as yellow-to-red. The resource can serve two purposes: 1) A clear visual display of thermal energy being transferred from a hotter to a cooler object; and 2) A way to “see” temperature differences in a way that cannot be detected with human vision. The video objects include the Old Faithful Geyser, mudspots, and hot springs. The images include a melting ice cube, cups with hot and cold drinks, a cup of hot coffee, a shoe with the foot just taken out, and a warm-blooded animal (human) holding a cold-blooded reptile.

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Middle School
Access Restrictions

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

Performance Expectations

HS-PS3-4 Plan and conduct an investigation to provide evidence that the transfer of thermal energy when two components of different temperature are combined within a closed system results in a more uniform energy distribution among the components in the system (second law of thermodynamics).

Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on analyzing data from student investigations and using mathematical thinking to describe the energy changes both quantitatively and conceptually. Examples of investigations could include mixing liquids at different initial temperatures or adding objects at different temperatures to water.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment is limited to investigations based on materials and tools provided to students.

This resource was not designed to build towards this performance expectation, but can be used to build towards it using the suggestions provided below.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
This resource is not a perfect fit for MS-PS3-4, but could easily be included within a unit on thermal energy in the middle school classroom. This may be a good time to address the fact that not all scientific inquiry can fit neatly into an experimental form. Some concepts, like thermal energy transfer, are invisible to human vision. To “see” spontaneous heat transfer, we use tools like infrared cameras that can be color-coded to let human eyes visualize heat flow when objects of different temperatures come in contact. To help students understand infrared, here is a downloadable chart and text explanation from NASA’s Hubblesite: What Is the Electromagnetic Spectrum? Here's the link: Teachers may also wish to introduce the fact that some animals DO detect radiation within the infrared wavelength on the EM Spectrum. Snakes have pit organs on their faces that let them “see” prey the same way it appears with an infrared camera. An 2010 article from Nature, "Snake Infrared Detection Unravelled", explains the process. Here's the link:

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 teacher can easily extend this activity to include the task of constructing an explanation of how heat is transferred between objects of differing temperatures. For example, the following questions could be introduced:  1) Which colors in the infrared images are associated with hotter objects? Which with cooler objects? Which with room-temperature objects? 2) Look very closely at the “Coffee” and the “Cups” images. How is the heat being transferred -- from the colder-to-warmer region or the warmer-to-colder region? (Teachers: These images clearly show that the heat is being transferred out of the hotter regions into colder ones.)  3) How do the infrared images help you to “see” heat transfer?  4) Construct an explanation of heat transfer between two objects of different temperatures.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

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

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
Students often need proof to believe that heat is transferred from a hotter to a cooler object, but not the other way around. This image set provides two important things: 1) A way to “see” heat transfer through infrared photography, and 2) Student-friendly text that explains exactly what’s going on in each image. The images that relate most specifically to this DCI are “Cups”, “Coffee”, “Ice Cube”, “Shoe”, and “Hot Springs”.  In particular, ask students to look carefully at the spoon in the coffee cup in the “Coffee” image. The color-coded image clearly shows the transfer of thermal energy from the hotter coffee liquid up into the spoon, but not vice versa. In the “Ice Cube” image, note the color gradation in the pool of meltwater.  NOTE TO TEACHERS: To promote inquiry, you may prefer to first  introduce the infrared images without the text explanation to elicit student ideas.  After this introduction, encourage students to carefully read the text explanations and analyze the color-coded temperature charts. By doing so, the activity can explicitly address this DCI related to thermal energy transfer .

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 resource does not explicitly mention energy flow in a system. To integrate this Crosscutting Concept, ask students to consider how infrared photography allows us to “see” the transfer of thermal energy at a precise moment in time, and how infrared video allows us to track energy flow in real time.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: (Resource is designated "N/A" because it is a phenomenon. The following text explains how it fits into the NGSS.) The topic of heat transfer is confounding to many students, who cannot easily visualize how thermal energy is transferred. Students can memorize the rule that thermal energy is transferred from hotter-to-cooler objects, but many cling to the incorrect notion that the energy is transferred in the opposite way because that’s what makes sense to them. (i.e., “Cold things spread their coolness to the surroundings.”)  Infrared photography is a way that we can visualize the temperature difference between hot and cold objects.  By looking closely at the color-coded temperature chart, learners can actually “see” the heat transfer.  The focus of the resource is to support students in making sense of this phenomenon. The interactivity of the resource is engaging to students, allowing them to self-pace and go back to images of particular interest. If students are encouraged to carefully read the text explanations and analyze the color-coded temperature charts, this resource can explicitly address the DCI related to thermal energy transfer and the Crosscutting Concept related to tracking energy in a natural system. By including discussion questions as suggested in Practices section above, the resource can be easily adapted to meet a Science and Engineering Practice.

  • Instructional Supports: The text information that accompanies each image and video provides moderate content support for students in both infrared technology and the transfer of heat between hotter and cooler objects. The resource allows students to experience the phenomenon firsthand by viewing images or videos of real objects (thus correlating with Ai under “Relevance and Authenticity”). Overall, however, the resource is not intended as a stand-alone lesson.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: The resource does not attempt to gauge or monitor student progress, nor does it offer links to assessment materials.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: While the resource is purposeful and relates well to the learning goal, it is presented in an older Flash format, which crashes or will not open in some browsers. It is well sequenced and nicely designed, but the technology is now a bit cumbersome, with less interactivity than digital “natives” are accustomed to. It is still one of the best open-access resources for younger adolescents to explore annotated infrared image sets that explain the science in lay terms.