Science ideas for young children: coolers

What makes a cooler work? Can you design a better one? Use these ideas to explore science with young children.

How does a cooler keep stuff cool? Can you design a better cooler than a commercial one? Discuss with your children how coolers work then try these simple experiments!

The most helpful tool for learning about coolers in this activity is a probe thermometer attached with a cable. This allows you to see how temperature is changing in your cooler without having to open it. I found one on sale for as low as $10, or you could invest in a fancier one for much as $100.

  1. Gather as many coolers as you can find. Try Styrofoam coolers, soft-sided lunch coolers, thermoses, big ones, small ones and coolers of different colors. Ask your child which one they think works the best at keeping things cold. Then put the same amount of ice in each cooler and put in the probe thermometer; try to seal around the thermometer cable as best as you can. If you have only one thermometer, run several tests with a timer and see how long it takes to get to a particular temperature.
  2. Brainstorm with your youth what else they think can be used as a cooler. Do they think anything will work as well (or better) than a commercial cooler? Run the same experiment with all sorts of containers (make sure the container is somewhere where leaking won’t be a problem). Think about unconventional items such as a cardboard box, lunchbox, paper sack, empty potato chip bag, water bottle, empty glass jar, empty plastic sour cream container, your underwear drawer or any place else you can think of!
  3. Try the same experiments above with a fan blowing over the container. Do you think it will make a difference? Experiment and find out.
  4. Brainstorm with your youth how they could improve commercial coolers. Could you improve their efficiency by wrapping them in an old blanket? How about a sweatshirt? What would happen if you put a smaller cooler inside a larger one? What if you put a pan of cold water in the cooler – would that make a difference? What if you wrapped the cooler in a wet towel? Experiment and find out!
  5. Experiment with your young person and try to build your own cooler with materials you find around the house. This could include leftover packing peanuts, cardboard, clothing, jello, wadded up paper and other items that they think could be useful in keeping things cold.
  6. Try building another cooler, but this time use materials found in nature. Think about what things plants and animals use to keep warm: feathers, fur, leaves, moss, woodchips, soil and other natural materials. Experiment and find out what works the best as an effective insulating material.

After you conduct all your different experiments, discuss with your child what worked best. Was it the natural materials or man-made? What was more effective, the commercial coolers, the ones you created or a combination of both? Then discuss with your children how scientists and engineers go through a similar process when they are designing new products!

Michigan State University Extension recognizes there are many opportunities for science education that occur in the natural world, including this one with coolers. This lesson can be conducted by any group working with children, including families, day cares, schools or 4-H clubs. Try these simple experiments to explore scientific concepts about coolers with your child.

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