Specific Heat Activities

Instructor: Julie Zundel

Julie has taught high school Zoology, Biology, Physical Science and Chem Tech. She has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master of Education.

Learning about specific heat gives students the opportunity to practice math skills as well as understand the world around them. This series of activities allows students to explore specific heat in a fun, hands-on way.

Learning About Specific Heat

Specific heat is the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of a substance by 1 degree Celsius. Learning about specific heat allows students to understand phenomenon they have observed in their everyday world, as well as gives them practice by using formulas in science. Most of these activities are geared towards older physics students, however, some can be modified to fit younger grades. These hands-on activities can be used alongside textbook lessons.

What's the Metal?

Grade Level: 9-12

In this lab activity, students will use a rudimentary calorimeter to determine the specific heat of a mystery metal. They will then use a chart to identify the metal based on its specific heat.

Materials (per group):

  • Beakers
  • Hotplates
  • Calculators
  • Calorimeters
    • Construct a calorimeter using a Styrofoam cup, and cutting a piece of board insulation as a lid. Place a hole in the lid for a thermometer.
  • Mystery metals
  • Tongs
  • Safety goggles
  • Graduated cylinder
  • Table with the specific heats of the metals used in the experiment

Homemade calorimeter


Note the triangle is referred to as 'delta' and means change.


Where: Q=thermal energy (J), m=mass (g), c=specific heat (J/g degrees C), and delta T=change in temperature (degrees C)

Teacher Directions/Background

  • Have students fill out the table below as they complete each task.

Mystery Metal Mass of Mystery Metal (g) Initial temperature of the hot metal (degrees C) Mass of the water (g) Initial temperature of the water (degrees C) Final Temperature of the water (degrees C) Final Temperature of the metal (degrees C) The change in water temperature (degrees C) Change in the temperature of metal (degrees C)
  • Choose mystery metal A, B, C or D and record its mass in the table (g).
  • Place the mystery metal in a beaker filled approximately ¾ full of water (or until the mystery metal is submerged), and bring it to a boil. Allow it to boil for ten minutes and take the temperature. Record this as the initial temperature of the hot metal.
    • Assume the temperature of the boiling water and the temperature of the hot metal are the same.
  • Weigh out 100 mL of water and add it to the calorimeter (record the mass of the water, and the initial temperature of water in the table).
  • Quickly add the hot metal to the calorimeter and record the highest temperature the water reaches (record this as the final temperature of the water). Also record the final temperature the metal reaches.
    • Assume the temperature of the metal is the same as the temperature of the water.
  • Complete the following calculations:
    • Change in temperature of the water=Final temperature - starting temperature
    • Change in temperature of the metal=Final temperature- starting temperature
      • Negative numbers are okay
    • Determine the Q the water
      • Note: the specific heat of water is 4.186 j/gC
    • Assume the energy absorbed from the water was lost from the metal. This will make the Q from previous calculation negative.
    • Use the specific heat formula to determine the specific heat of the mystery metal:
  • Use a table of specific heats to determine what the mystery metal was
  • Repeat for the next three mystery metals.

Sand vs. Water

Grade Level: K-12

Materials (per student group):

  • Sand
  • Water
  • Two thermometers
  • Two cups (don't use paper cups)
  • Scissors
  • Box (that can hold the two cups and a lamp)
  • Heat lamp (or regular lamp)

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