Heat conduction in different materials

Observe the varying speed of heat conduction in metal, plastic and wood.
Science content
Physics: Heat (3)
  • coffee cup
  • strips of the same size, about 15cm by 2cm, and the same thickness made from different materials e.g. aluminium metal, plastic and wood (cut from hardware store-purchased aluminium sheet, plastic place mat and large popsicle stick)
  • pennies, one per strip
  • vaseline
  • kettle for boiling water

Prepare the strips for the activity:
Add a small smear of vaseline to the end of each strip. Make sure you use the same amount each time and add it in the same spot. (Using an applicator, such as a coffee stir stick, will help to make the amounts more consistent - see photo.)
Push a penny into the vaseline on each strip.

Each student group can have a set of strips with pennies, and a coffee cup.

Add just-boiled water to the coffee cup, then simultaneously add a metal, plastic and wooden stick to the water with the pennies pointing upwards. Make sure they are sloped outwards by the same degree, so that this is not a variable in the penny falling off. (Penny has just fallen off the aluminium strip in the first photo.) For most students, it is best if the teacher does this step, to make it as fast and consistent as possible.

Students record on worksheet (see attachment) which penny falls off first, second and third. Some pennies may stay stuck for longer than you want to run the activity, but make sure at least one has fallen off before stopping.

Metal strips are expected to release the penny first, but some experiments may differ. Plastic and wood release the penny later.
Record the class results, to find out what happens most of the time.

Discuss the mechanism:
Heat moves up the strip by conduction. Once the heat energy reaches the vaseline it melts it and causes the penny to fall off. The different materials conduct heat at different rates: metals conduct heat the fastest, wood and plastic much slower.

Discuss the molecular mechanism with older students:
The molecules of the water are moving around fast. As they bump into the end of the strip that is immersed in the water, they transfer their energy to molecules in the strip, which also start to move around faster. The molecules at the bottom of the strip bump the molecules higher up the strip and their heat energy is transferred too, so spreading the heat energy up the strip. In different materials, the molecules are more or less able to transfer heat energy to the neighbouring molecules, so the rate of heat transfer varies. When the heat energy reaches the vaseline it melts it (the molecules of the vaseline move faster as they change from solid to liquid). The melted vaseline can no longer hold onto the penny, so the penny drops.
The movement of heat when molecules transfer energy between each other by colliding with each other is called “conduction”.

Metals are better heat conductors than plastic and wood. A material that is not a good conductor is an "insulator".


With older students you might want to try 2 kinds of metals: aluminium (which is a very good conductor) and steel (which is not such a good conductor). In my testing at home this gave reproducible results, but not in the classroom (see third photo).
I would suggest running as a demonstration for grades 2/3 and below, to eliminate any variables from the students (knocking or touching).
I have found heat a tricky topic to bring to hands-on science. There seem to be a lot of variables that need to be discovered through prototyping before bringing and activity to the classroom - this activity needs more work.

Grades taught
Gr 2
Gr 3
Teaching site
Champlain Heights Annex
Oppenheimer Elementary