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Burning Calories—Literally!

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1 review
Grade Range
6th-8th
Group Size
2-4 students
Active Time
4 hours
Total Time
4 hours
Area of Science
Human Biology & Health
Key Concepts
Food Energy, Healthy Diet
Learning Objectives
  • Understand the Calorie as a unit of food energy.
  • Explain the processes that allow a calorimeter to measure the energy stored in food.
  • Use a homemade calorimeter to measure and calculate the energy content of a food item.
  • Explain the relationship between calories, energy, and good nutrition.
burning marshmallow

Overview

Your students might know that they can burn calories, but do they know what a calorie really is? In this fun lesson plan, your students will measure the energy content of food by literally burning it using a device called a calorimeter that they will design and build themselves. This will get your students thinking about the chemistry of energy transfer as well as good nutrition, and gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "burning calories!"

NGSS Alignment

This lesson helps students prepare for these Next Generation Science Standards Performance Expectations:
  • MS-PS3-3. Apply scientific principles to design, construct, and test a device that either minimizes or maximizes thermal energy transfer.
  • MS-PS3-4. Plan an investigation to determine the relationships among the energy transferred, the type of matter, the mass, and the change in the average kinetic energy of the particles as measured by the temperature of the sample.
This lesson focuses on these aspects of NGSS Three Dimensional Learning:

Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions. Apply scientific ideas or principles to design, construct, and test a design of an object, tool, process or system.

Engage in Argumentation from Evidence. Construct, use, and present oral and written arguments supported by empirical evidence and scientific reasoning to support or refute an explanation or a model for a phenomenon.

Mathematical and Computational Thinking. Apply mathematical concepts and/or processes (e.g. ratio, rate, percent, basic operations, simple algebra) to scientific and engineering questions and problems.

Connections to Nature of Science
Scientific Knowledge is Based on Empirical Evidence. Science knowledge is based upon logical and conceptual connections between evidence and explanations.
PS3.A: Definitions of Energy. Temperature is a measure of the average kinetic energy of particles of matter. The relationship between the temperature and the total energy of a system depends on the types, states, and amounts of matter present.

PS3.B: Conservation of Energy and Energy Transfer. The amount of energy transfer needed to change the temperature of a matter sample by a given amount depends on the nature of the matter, the size of the sample, and the environment.

Energy is spontaneously transferred out of hotter regions or objects and into colder ones.
Energy and Matter. Energy may take different forms (e.g. energy in fields, thermal energy, energy of motion).

The transfer of energy can be tracked as energy flows through a designed or natural system.

Systems and System Models. Models can be used to represent systems and their interactions—such as inputs, processes, and outputs—and energy and matter flows within systems.

Credits

Sabine De Brabandere, PhD, Science Buddies

Materials


materials calorimeter contents

For each group of 2–4 students, you will need:

  • Calorimeter Kit, available from our partner Home Science Tools. The kit includes:
    • Large tin can, 6 3/16 inches by 7 inches; no lid
    • Small tin can, 3 3/8 inches by 4 1/16 inches; no lid
    • Wooden dowel, 12 inches by 1/4 inch
    • Bottle cork
    • Aluminum pie pan, 8 inch diameter
    • Sewing needles, sharps size 10 (4)
    • 20 gauge craft wire, 10 inch length (2)
    • Plastic graduated cylinder, 250 mL
    • Immersion thermometer
    • Safety glasses
  • Additional safety glasses, so each student has one pair
  • Hammer and nail
  • Water
  • Long matches, a Bunsen burner, or a multipurpose lighter like the ones available from Amazon.com.
  • Digital scale with 0.1 g increments, like this scale available from Amazon.com.
  • Oven mitts, at least 1 per group.
  • Pieces of a food to test (4–5) Include one that is rich in healthy fats like nuts, and one that is lower in fat but rich in refined sugar like marshmallows. Dry items with a relatively high oil content and those that trap air will generally work better. Examples are:
    • Nuts (cashews, peanuts, etc.)
    • Popcorn
    • Marshmallows
    • Croutons
    • Dry pet food
    • Croissant
    • Cheerios®
  • Transparent containers, 1 per food item that will be tested. Containers will need to hold 100 g of food.
  • Cloth or paper towels
  • Calculator
  • Optional: material to prop up the can and leave an opening for air flow at the bottom
  • Optional: Aluminum foil

To prepare ahead, you will need:

  • A can opener

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Grade Range
6th-8th
Group Size
2-4 students
Active Time
4 hours
Total Time
4 hours
Area of Science
Human Biology & Health
Key Concepts
Food Energy, Healthy Diet
Learning Objectives
  • Understand the Calorie as a unit of food energy.
  • Explain the processes that allow a calorimeter to measure the energy stored in food.
  • Use a homemade calorimeter to measure and calculate the energy content of a food item.
  • Explain the relationship between calories, energy, and good nutrition.

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