Ice insulation: STEM challenge for kids

This science experiment is one of three experiments listed in my recent post What melts ice the fastest? Here, we learn about insulation by creating a simple science experiment with whatever is on hand. Your little scientists will be thrilled that they get to design their insulators!

My super fancy state-of-the-art paper towel insulator

STEM challenge: Design an insulator

To answer the question what is the best insulation to keep ice from melting? your mini-scientists will have to get creative as they design and test an insulator of their own. Using the materials you have on hand, challenge them to explore how different materials affect the melting time of an ice cube.

How long can you keep ice frozen for? See how mine worked in the photos below!

Heat energy

The three experiments in the post I linked above deal with heat energy. Heat energy can be transferred via conduction (when two objects are touching), convection (molecules moving), or radiation (electromagnetic waves).

While sometimes we want to melt to ice, we also want to keep it frozen sometimes, too! There’s a reason that yeti coolers have become so big in the last few years… They are so well insulated that ice stays cold for days (keeping food and drinks cold, too)!

If we want to prevent heat transfer, then we need to insulate our object! While a makeshift cooler may not have results as impressive as Yeti’s, we can design something to keep ice insulated.

Before you start: Download these worksheets!

While these activities are great on their own, you may want to use worksheets as a form of assessment. If so, either head to my Teachers Pay Teachers store to download my Free Don’t melt the ice! STEM challenge and worksheet bundleor download the individual worksheet for this experiment as a PDF below. It’s a two-sided worksheet, so be sure to check your print settings!

I also have a Scientific method worksheet available for free in my shop.

How to create the experiment

As long as there is a control (an ice cube with no insulator), the way this experiment is designed is totally up to the children! Check out the suggested materials below for prompt ideas.

Some tips, though:

  • Cover ice all the way. You don’t want the surface area exposed on some and not the others!
  • Cover the container! You don’t want external heat to interfere with your test.
  • Use the same type of container for each test. Some materials will insulate ice better than others (like a plastic cooler vs. metal coolers), so it would be tough to tell whether your material is insulating the ice or the container.
  • Stick to liquids or solids. I used solids, but you could also test liquid materials like ice-cold water and hot water.
  • This experiment takes time! I would suggest starting it early in the day and then checking on your melting process in timed increments.
    • I used standard ice trays for mine, but you could use bigger ice trays if you wanted. Larger ice cubes will take longer.

Materials

  • Enough ice cubes to have one in each container
  • A sealable container for each ice cube
  • Any materials required for the child’s insulator design
    • Ideas: Wood shavings, cotton balls, bubble wrap, towels, pom poms, rice, aluminum foil/tin foil… Whatever is on hand!
    • I used paper towel and baking powder

Instructions

  1. Brainstorm: Which items would make good insulators?
    • Ask questions like: What do we know about freezing and melting? How can we use this knowledge to keep ice from melting? Should we test if crushed ice melts faster?
    • If you did the other experiments, you might ask the children what they learned and how they could apply it. For example, we know that direct sunlight melted our ice pretty quickly in the colored paper and ice experiment. We also learned that dark colors absorb heat fasted than light colors… So, would we choose a dark or light-colored container?
      • During the what melts ice the fastest? experiment, we learned that certain materials can lower the freezing point of ice (so would we want to use those?)
  2. Predict: What do you think will happen? Will your ice stay intact for a few minutes or a few hours?
  3. Design: Design an insulator
  4. Test!
    • Create a control model by placing an ice cube in a container with nothing in it
  5. Put one ice cube in each of the other containers you are testing
  6. Note the start time
  7. See whose ice cube takes the longest to melt!
  8. Communicate the results

*Note: I’ve been told that using previously boiled water will prevent air bubbles in ice cubes. With a simple experiment like this, it isn’t detrimental to your results. But, without bubbles, the ice cubes will melt at a more even rate.

What happened when we tried this experiment?

I was inspired by my last experiment, What melts ice the fastest? with one of my test materials. In that experiment, it took only 7 minutes for the control ice cubes to melt. But, the ice cube in the baking powder took 35 minutes! So, for this experiment, I used baking powder as one insulator and paper towel as another. Not wildly creative, I know, but it’s what I had!

I was pretty surprised at how long they took to melt. The control cube took 61 minutes to melt. The paper towel ice cube took 2 hours to melt. The baking powder took just about 3 hours to melt! Who knew baking powder was a good insulator?

Ice cubes and insulators: Before melting

Control cube
Baking powder
Paper towel (I covered the ice cube before putting the lid on)

After one hour

The water was melting quickly compared to the other two! It’s tough to see, but there’s a tiny little sliver of ice left here
There was a little bit of ice still hiding under the soaked baking powder

There it is! That’s our simple science experiment for testing how long we can keep ice from melting. Who knew something as simple as preventing ice from melting could make for such a fun experiment?

And, if you’ve tried this experiment, we would love to hear how it went! What made a good insulator? What didn’t work?

Elke Crosson
Elke Crosson

Elke Crosson has her BA in International Relations with a minor in Spanish at UBC (Okanagan). She is currently in her second year of the Master of Teaching program at the University of Toronto, with dreams of becoming an elementary-level teacher.