Asee peer logo

Thermodynamics For Tots To Teens

Download Paper |


2005 Annual Conference


Portland, Oregon

Publication Date

June 12, 2005

Start Date

June 12, 2005

End Date

June 15, 2005



Conference Session

K-12 Poster Session

Page Count


Page Numbers

10.1343.1 - 10.1343.6



Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors

author page

Michele Perrin

Download Paper |

NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Thermodynamics for Tots to Teens Michele Perrin University of Missouri


This paper describes ten different ways to use a temperature sensor to investigate thermodynamics with younger students. Physical concepts such as temperature scales, heat transfer, phase changes in water, Newton’s Law of Cooling, and calorimetry can be explored through typical playtime activities – touching (observation), pouring (manipulation), and sorting (classification). Activities such as mixing cups of hot and cold water allow children to continue experimenting with their first temperature “sensors” (their fingers), while formalizing the process of scientific inquiry with a simple, handheld measurement tool. Exposing students to proper thermodynamics principles and terminology at an early age prevents common misconceptions that surface when students reach college. Through the ten activities described in this paper, teachers can begin to build on a toddler’s intuitive thermodynamic notions to help assure success in later academic endeavors.


One of the earliest subjects children learn is thermodynamics. Toddlers distinguish hot from cold through food, bath water, snow, sand boxes, and the kitchen stove. Repeatedly, throughout their early years, children experiment with the principles of temperature, heat transfer, phase change, and calorimetry. Yet, thermodynamics continues to be one of the toughest courses in an introductory engineering curriculum. Part of this perception is due to the plethora of technical terms, scientific principles, and mathematical algorithms that are contained in the course. As children play, they are never told that touching a hot stove is called “conduction” or feeling the sun warm your face is called “radiation.” In point of fact, they are constantly given negative feedback regarding their explorations into these beginning thermodynamics principles. “Don’t touch the stove or don’t stay out in the sun too long - you will get burned.”

Many freshmen enter college firmly entrenched in “ignorant certainty.”1,2 Their preconceptions about the way the world works are based on information passed on to them by persons in authority. Parents and teachers can unknowingly instill thermodynamic misconceptions in children as they mature. For example, a toddler demanding to know why an ice cube sitting on the table turns into water is often told the ice is “warming up.” These misconceptions are doubly hard to overturn, since there is a significant parent-child or teacher-child bond of loyalty involved. Many college professors assume that students are familiar with simple thermodynamic concepts by the time they reach their lecture halls. Unfortunately, this isn’t always true. A thermodynamics quiz given by the author to a group of high school students revealed that over half of them were not able to distinguish between heat and temperature by their Junior year. Clearly, if K-12 teachers continued to build on a toddler’s basic knowledge of heat and “Proceedings of the 2005 American Society for Engineering Educations Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright  2005, American Society for Engineering Education”

Perrin, M. (2005, June), Thermodynamics For Tots To Teens Paper presented at 2005 Annual Conference, Portland, Oregon. 10.18260/1-2--15152

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2005 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015