Lesson Plan

Prepare for Cold Air!

Students snowshoe with a ranger at Craters of the Moon

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Grade Level:
Upper Elementary: Third Grade through Fifth Grade
Lesson Duration:
90 Minutes
Common Core Standards:
3.RI.3, 4.RI.3, 5.RI.3, 6-8.RST.3
Thinking Skills:
Applying: Apply an abstract idea in a concrete situation to solve a problem or relate it to a prior experience. Analyzing: Break down a concept or idea into parts and show the relationships among the parts.


Students will observe the difference in heat loss between a well-insulated object and a poorly-insulated object, as well as how to prepare themselves for a winter snowshoe hike. Students will conduct experiments and observe the differences in insulation values for a variety of materials. Students will discover factors that influence winter survival for animals and learn how to dress for an outdoor snowshoe hike at Craters of the Moon.


This lesson can be completed in a variety of ways. With younger students it can be done as a teacher-led activity. Have students write the temperatures on the board as they are observed. Ask them which is warmer or colder.

Older students can work in pairs. Have each pair use a different type of insulation in their experiment. At the end of the activity, have students compare their findings to determine the best and worst insulator.


Other options include:       

Repeat the experiment with dampened insulating materials (to model sweat-, rain-,or snow soaked clothing) or with a fan blowing on the samples (to model windy conditions).

Investigate the rate of heat loss when the sample can is immersed in a larger can filled with water and ice cubes to model breaking through an ice-covered stream or lake.


Three Choices for Animals

Winter presents several obstacles to survival: scarce food, deep snow, and cold temperatures are all common at Craters of the Moon. Animals adopt one of three strategies to cope with winter:

Escape through migration

Avoid through hibernation

Adapt to the change in environment.

This lesson focuses on adaptation through added insulation to trap heat.


Staying Warm in Winter

Many animals adapt to cold temperatures by growing a thicker layer of fur. People adapt as well, wearing sweatshirts, heavy coats, boots, and stocking caps when the weather is cold, instead of the T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops they wear in summer. Heavier fur for animals and extra layers for people both create spaces that trap air. Trapped air provides insulation and slows the rate of heat loss. An animal's fur coat often features hollow hairs, which trap air to provide additional insulation.


Staying warm in winter isn't the only way for animals to survive. Animals that adapt to winter use some or all of the following methods:

·         Fat Storage - Deer eat lots in the summer when many shrubs have green, healthy leaves. Their bodies convert the food to fat. The fat helps insulate them from the cold and can be converted back to energy when there is no food to eat.

·        Huddling - Small animals, like mice, sleep together with other mice in a communal nest. Heat is shared between

individual animals and not lost to the cold air around them.

·         Yarding - Deep snow is difficult to move through for deer and other animals with long legs. When animals yard up they pack the snow down in an area. Packed snow is much easier to walk on because animals use less energy than trying to wade through deep snow.

·         Countercurrent heat exchange - Animals with exposed body parts, like a bird's skinny legs, risk heat loss as warm blood travels to these extremities. Heat moves from the outbound arterial supply to the returning vein, warming the returning blood. This exchange of heat helps keep the animal warm.


When People Get Cold

The normal body temperature for a human is 98.6° Fahrenheit (F). Hypothermia occurs when body temperature drops below 98.6°F and can be caused by prolonged exposure to the cold. Symptoms of hypothermia include:

95° - 93°F: Shivering, mild confusion, and muscle incoordination.

93° - 90°F: Shivering, stumbling and slurred speech.

90° - 86°F: All shivering stops, inability to walk, cannot think rationally.

86° - 82°F: Muscles become rigid, semi-consciousness, dilated pupils.

Below 82°F: Total loss of consciousness, eventual death.

If you recognize any of these symptoms in yourself or others when you are out in cold weather, get to a warm place and seek immediate help.



Gather the following materials are needed for each group:

  1. 2 clean, empty soup cans of the same size (have students save these a week before the activity)

  2. 1 type of material for insulation (suggestions below)

  3. glue

  4. 2 thermometers

  5. hot water

  6. clock or watch

  7. paper and pencil

  8. ruler (to make graphs)

Possible insulating materials: 1 bag cotton balls; old socks (one cotton and one wool for comparison); 1 sq. ft. of quilt batting, polar fleece, or jean denim; or come up with your own.


Download Student Worksheet

Lesson Hook/Preview

Do Now: What are some types of insulation you see in your everyday life? 


  1. Prepare the cans. Remove labels and rinse out, if necessary. Place one can on the table with the open end down.

  2. Add insulation. Place sock on can or glue cotton balls, quilt batting, or other insulation onto the surface. If using cotton balls, fluff them out once the glue has dried.

  3. Fill the cans with warm water. Try to start with water that is close to normal human body temperature, about 98° to 100°F. Use water from the same container or faucet to fill both cans so the starting temperature is the same for each. Fill each can with an equal amount of water.

  4. Measure the water temperature. Measure and record the initial water temperature without letting the thermometer touch the side of the can.

  5. Place the cans outside. The cans can be placed anywhere (sun, snow, shade, pavement, etc.) as long as both cans are in the same location.

  6. Record the water temperatures for 30 minutes. Measure and record the temperature on the table on page 6 for each can every 5 minutes. Use the graph on the Student Worksheet to show the change in temperature for each can.

 7.  Answer the questions on the Student Worksheet.



  1. acclimation - physiological adjustment by an organism to environmental change

  2. adapt - to make fit for a new use, often by change or modification

  3. antifreeze - a substance that is added to a liquid, usually water, to prevent it from freezing

  4. basal metabolism - the amount of energy required by an individual in the resting state, such as for breathing and circulation of the blood

  5. behavioral adaptation - a change in behavior that makes an animal better able to cope with the environment and survive

  6. conduction - the transfer of heat or energy through direct contact from one object to another

  7. countercurrent heat exchange - a counter-flow mechanism that enables fluids at different temperatures flowing in channels in opposite directions to exchange their heat content without mixing

  8. evaporation - the change of a liquid into a vapor at a temperature below the boiling point

  9. food web - a food web depicts feeding connections (what eats what) in an ecological community

  10. hibernation - an inactive state resembling deep sleep in which certain animals living in cold climates pass the winter; in hibernation, the body temperature is lowered and breathing and heart rates slow down; hibernation protects the animal from cold and reduces the need for food during the season when food is scarce

  11. hypothermia - subnormal temperature of the body

  12. insulation - a material or substance used to prevent the passage of heat

  13. migration - the seasonal movement of animals from one area to another; migration is usually a response to changes in temperature, food supply, or the amount of daylight

  14. nivean environment - an environment dominated by the presence of snow; supranivean - the part of the nivean environment above or on the snow; internivean - the part of the nivean environment within the snow; subnivean - the part of the nivean environment beneath, below, or at the base of the snow

  15. radiation - emission and propagation of energy

  16. temperature gradient snow - snow in which crystal growth or change occurs at a very fast rate due to a large temperature difference across the snow pack; snow becomes faceted and bonds poorly, also called "sugar snow"

  17. torpor - sometimes called temporary hibernation, it is a state of decreased physiological activity in an animal; usually characterized by a reduced body temperature and rate of metabolism

  18. wind chill - the serious chilling effect of wind and low temperature; it is measured on a scale that runs from hot to fatal to life and allows for varying combinations of air temperature and wind speed

  19. yarding - a behavioral tactic used by deer to cope with severe winter weather; by staying in one area, trampling may expose food and make movement easier

Assessment Materials

Facilitate a class discussion about the questions on the student worksheet (in Materials):

  1. Did one can cool faster than the other? Why?

  2. If your class used different types of insulation for each can, which one did the best at insulating the can? Why?

  3. If you had to live outside during winter, what types of clothing would you use to insulate yourself from the cold?

Additional Resources

Optional Items for more complex experiments:

Ice cubes

Pan or large bowl


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