Thermal Energy Activities for Middle School

Instructor: Heather Jenkins

Heather has a bachelor's degree in elementary education and a master's degree in special education. She was a public school teacher and administrator for 11 years.

As students study thermal energy, consider having them learn about the effect of heat on molecules and different methods of heat transfer. Use these hands-on activities to help students experience thermal energy.

Feeling' Hot, Hot, Hot

When students roast marshmallows on a campfire, bake cookies, or enjoy a warm room on a cold winter day, they are experiencing thermal energy. As students study thermal energy, they can learn about how molecules move when exposed to heat and different methods of heat transfer. Let's look at some activities to help students explore thermal energy.

Heat and Movement

Students will use food coloring and cups with water of varying temperatures to observe the effect of heat on the movement of molecules.


  • Clear cups
  • Food coloring
  • Stopwatches
  • Chart paper
  • Markers

Teacher Directions

  • Define thermal energy and discuss the impact of heat on the movement of molecules.
  • Divide the class into small groups and provide each group with three cups, food coloring, a stopwatch, chart paper, and markers.
  • Have students observe and record the rate that food coloring disperses in different temperatures of water.
  • Students should label their cups 'cold,' 'room temperature,' and 'hot.' Assist students in pouring cold, room temperature, and hot water into their corresponding cups.
  • Starting with the cup with hot water (so it doesn't cool off too much), have students place five drops of food coloring into the cup and start the stop watch.
  • Students should continue to keep time until the food coloring completely disperses throughout the water. Students should also examine how the food coloring moves in the water. They should record both the time and their observations on their chart paper.
  • Students should repeat the same process with the cold water next and then the room temperature water.
  • When finished, have students share their results with the class.
  • Consider discussing the results of the experiment in relation to convection, a method of heat transfer.

Discussion Questions

  • How did the food coloring behave in each cup? Which cup took the least amount of time to disperse the food coloring? What does this have to do with the temperature of the water in each cup?
  • What effect does heat have on the movement of molecules?

Good Conductors

Students will experiment with what types of materials best conduct heat.


  • Cups
  • Metal spoons
  • Straws
  • Popsicle sticks
  • Tape
  • Butter
  • Hot water

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