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Burning Calories—Literally!

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Grade Range
6th-8th
Group Size
2-4 students
Active Time
90 minutes
Total Time
90 minutes
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.
  • Understand 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 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.

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. 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.

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, preferably distilled; available at your local grocery store
  • 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 (dry items with a relatively high oil content and those that trap air will generally work better). Choose a different food item for each group, and include at least one item that is rich in healthy fats, like nuts, and one that is lower in fat but rich in refined sugar, like marshmallows. If you have many groups, you can have two groups study the same food item. Examples of food items are:
    • Nuts (cashews, peanuts, etc.)
    • Popcorn
    • Marshmallows
    • Croutons
    • Dry pet food
    • Croissant
    • Cheerios®
  • Cloth or paper towels
  • Calculator

To prepare the cans, you will need:

  • A can opener

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Grade Range
6th-8th
Group Size
2-4 students
Active Time
90 minutes
Total Time
90 minutes
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.
  • Understand the relationship between calories, energy, and good nutrition.

Class Materials