Unit 2: Exploring the Nature of Thermal Phenomena

I. Introduction

When light from the Sun shines on the Earth, things often get hot. This unit explores the nature of such thermal phenomena. Why, for example, do some things feel hot or cold? What is the difference between heat and temperature? How is energy conserved when mixing hot and cold water? While exploring the nature of thermal phenomena, you will be:

  • identifying resources such as relevant language you use and experiences you have had
  • developing central ideas based on evidence that you record in exploring how energy flows from hot to cold objects
  • explaining an intriguing phenomenon such as why you might prefer sitting on wooden rather than metal risers in watching a soccer game late in the fall
  • developing mathematical representations of the transfer of energy in various contexts
  • using mathematical representations to estimate a quantity of interest such as how much cold water to add to a cup of tea too hot to drink and
  • making connections to educational policy, such as the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013), the science standards adopted by many US departments of education.

During this unit, you will be learning about learning processes as well as about physics as you summarize and reflect upon your explorations. Also important will be integrating science and literacy learning such as speaking clearly, listening closely, writing coherently, reading with comprehension, and creating and critiquing media.

The main sections of the text present questions with suggestions for exploring topics and for writing reflections about your findings. Text in gray font indicates that these are suggestions; you may think of other ways to explore the topic. You are encouraged to ask and explore your own questions about thermal phenomena as well as those posed here. Check with your instructor if you choose to devise an alternative approach.

Much of the learning will occur within small groups as you and your group members talk with one another about what you are thinking and why. Keeping track of what one is doing and thinking is important. This course uses a template for a physics notebook page on which to record notes during class. The physics notebook page can help you remember your thoughts before, during, and after an exploration. An experienced elementary teacher, Adam Devittt, designed this notebook page to mirror the structure of before, during, and after reading strategies.

Before starting an exploration, think about and discuss with your group members what you know already about the topic, what questions you are asking, how you plan to conduct the exploration, and what you think you might find out.

During your exploration, record what is happening, what you are observing, and what you are thinking about what you are observing. Include sketches of equipment and observations. Note any words that are new and their definitions.

After your exploration, record any central ideas that have emerged from your observations and discussions. Also note the evidence on which you have based these ideas. In addition, provide a rationale that states explicitly how the evidence is relevant and supports the claims you are making in stating the central ideas. Also explain why this result is important. Then write a reflection about whatever you want to remember about this experience. In addition, briefly state what you are still wondering in this context.

After class, use your physics notebook pages and any handouts to write a summary of your exploration and findings. Writing such a summary after every class is a good way to prepare for the midterm and final examinations.

Next, to be sure you have understood the physics involved, read this text and some examples of student work. The student authors first wrote drafts, received feedback for ways to enhance content and clarity, and submitted these final versions. Also read about some nuances to consider when explaining the phenomena explored.

You also may find helpful student reflections about teaching a friend or family member about what they had just learned in class, historical information about ways knowledge about the topic developed, and some relevant aspects of the nature of science in the context of the topic explored. These sections of the text may broaden your understanding of science and of science learning and teaching.


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Exploring Physical Phenomena by Emily Van Zee & Elizabeth Gire is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.