Science in extreme cold

Even though you probably don’t want to stay outside for long, you can still learn science.

Extreme cold weather has been common in many parts of the U.S. lately. This weather provides an interesting opportunity to explore temperature in the world around us. Here are some quick activities Michigan State University Extension has come up with to enjoy with the young people in your life.

  1. Guess where it is hottest – Look outside the window and try to guess which areas of the yard or playground will be coolest. Go out with a thermometer and test your guess. If you were wrong, try to explain why.
  2. Insulation contest – Ask the kids to design a “cooler” to keep water at a consistent temperature with stuff lying around that would otherwise be thrown away. Cardboard, paper, packing peanuts, foam cups, leftover food, butter tubs, foil and any other materials could be used as the container and/or insulation. Check the temperature several hours later to see what worked.
  3. Greenhouse building – Similar to the last idea, but see if you can get the temperature to increase in a greenhouse. Use materials around to see how warm you can get it. Plastic wrap (different colors if you can), bubble wrap, garbage bags and leftover plastic containers can all be adapted. Can foil or other metal be used to direct light into the greenhouse?
  4. Freezing water - Will warm water or cold water freeze faster? It is not as obvious as most kids will think. Try to explain why.
  5. Boiling water to snow – If it is very cold out, you can boil water on the stove or in the microwave and throw it into to the air and watch it freeze before it hits the ground. Warning: Pay attention to wind direction before you do this.
  6. The strength of ice – Kids may know that ice expands as it freezes, but how strong is that force and how much does it expand? Fill a water bottle half way with water and mark the outside of the bottle with water and see how much it expands when it freezes. Why does the water expand? Fill the bottle completely and see if the bottle ruptures. Try containers made out of different materials, different types of plastic bottles, metal, waterproof wooden containers, paint cans, etc. Can anything resist the power of freezing water? Warning: Sometimes the rupturing of a container can happen suddenly and send pieces flying, so make sure you place it in a safe area and/or time when it will not harm people or property (overnight is a good option).
  7. Smashing – Many kids like to break things. Extreme cold weather makes things more brittle. Why does this happen? When things are warm, they can bend and stretch rather than break. If there are old toys or other things that are going out in the trash anyway, you can use them for material science stress tests. Make sure the material is on a tarp and everyone in the area is wearing safety goggles with side shields that protect the eyes. Use a hammer to see how brittle things get in the cold. Does it have any affect?

Instead of just complaining about the cold, you can use it as a chance to experiment with science and engineering. Have fun!

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