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Middle School    |    Formative Assessment Probe

Ice-Cold Lemonade

By Page Keeley

Assessment Physical Science Middle School

Sensemaking Checklist

This is the new updated edition of the first book in the bestselling Uncovering Student Ideas in Science series. Like the first edition of volume 1, this book helps pinpoint what your students know (or think they know) so you can monitor their learning and adjust your teaching accordingly. Loaded with classroom-friendly features you can use immediately, the book includes 25 “probes”—brief, easily administered formative assessments designed to understand your students’ thinking about 60 core science concepts.

Ice-Cold Lemonade

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The purpose of this assessment probe is to elicit students’ ideas about transfer of energy. The probe is designed to determine whether students recognize that heat flows from warmer objects or areas to cooler ones.

Type of Probe

Familiar phenomenon

Related Concepts

Heat, transfer of energy, thermodynamics, thermal energy


The best response is B: The heat from the lemonade moved into the ice. This probe uses the everyday, colloquial meaning of the word heat. However, heat has a more precise meaning in science. What is commonly called heat or heat energy in our everyday language is actually thermal energy. Thermal energy is associated with the random motion of molecules in a substance. Heat refers to thermal energy in transit and is best used as a verb or when thermal energy is moving within or between systems. However, in this probe, the word heat is used to probe for conceptual understanding of energy transfer as students may not yet be familiar with the term thermal energy.

Thermal energy is transferred from one place to another through the process of energy flow. Thermal energy can move only from a warmer object or area to a cooler object or area, never the other way around. In the case of the lemonade and ice, as the molecules of the warmer lemonade came in contact with the molecules of the cooler ice, thermal energy flowed into the ice from the lemonade. This process “cooled” the warm lemonade as it transferred energy to the ice and melted it.

Common language contains many references to the idea of “cold” moving from place to place. Children are advised to close a refrigerator door so as not to “let the cold out,” and we complain about winter chills that “get into your bones.” Such phrases reinforce the common notion that something known as cold can move from place to place. Because what we sense as warm or cold simply refers to the average thermal energy of an object’s molecules, these references to cold moving are generally misnomers for the transfer of thermal energy from warmer to cooler objects or areas. Instead of asking for ice to cool off the lemonade, perhaps a better request would be, “May I please have some ice so my lemonade can heat the ice cubes?”

Curricular and Instructional Considerations

Elementary Students

In the elementary grades, students use the terms warm, hot, cool, and cold to qualitatively describe phenomena and interactions with objects and their surroundings. They have experiences mixing same and different amounts of hot and cold water together or putting ice in warm water and finding the resulting temperature. They talk about heat as a type of continuum from cold to hot, but they commonly associate heat with objects such as the stove, the Sun, or a fire. Developing the formal idea of heat as the movement or flow of thermal energy should wait until middle school. At this grade level, it is sufficient for students to know that energy moves from one place to another, which can be observed with their senses and tracked. They can observe how warmer objects cool down or how an object becomes warm when in contact with a hot object. The emphasis should be on tracking where the energy manifested as heat goes.

Middle School Students

Students enter middle school with a general concept of heat but still associate it more with the nature of objects rather than energy transfer. Developing understanding of the term thermal energy helps students distinguish between the internal energy of an object, heat, and temperature. Students’ experiences with transfer of energy via heat expand to include conduction, convection, and radiation. By the end of middle school, students should be able to connect the motion of molecules and heat to the transfer of thermal energy. Even with formal instruction, middle school students may still have difficulty understanding the direction of flow of thermal energy as the temperature changes in a system.

High School Students

High school students encounter the laws of thermodynamics and use these laws to predict and explain energy phenomena. They quantitatively model how energy moves within a system until it is uniformly distributed. Energy is a crosscutting concept reaching into every discipline of high school science. The concepts of heat, thermal energy, temperature, and energy transfer are extended into other contexts, including nuclear reactions, energy that drives Earth cycles, and biological and chemical energy transfers.

Administering the Probe

This probe is best used in grades 6–12. You may wish to use visual props for this probe. For example, pour a glass of warm lemonade. Place a thermometer in the glass of lemonade, and tell the class what the temperature of the lemonade is. Add ice to the glass of lemonade. After 10 minutes, tell the class what the temperature of the iced lemonade is and pose the question in the probe. Be aware that the language in the probe answer choices is intentional. The word moved is used instead of transferred to avoid memorized definitions of energy transfer, and the familiar word heat is used as a stepping stone to the term thermal energy, which they may not be familiar with yet. You may want to ask students to draw a picture to explain what is happening inside the glass of lemonade, noting whether they perceive heat as a substance that moves, similar to the historical “caloric” model, or use ideas about the motion of particulate matter.

Related Disciplinary Core Ideas (NRC 2012; NGSS Lead States 2013)


PS3.B: Conservation of Energy and Energy Transfer

Energy is spontaneously transferred out of hotter regions or objects and into colder ones.

Related Research

  • Middle school students often do not explain the process of heating and cooling in terms of heat energy being transferred. When transfer ideas are involved, some students think that cold is being transferred from a colder to warmer object. Other students think that both heat and cold are transferred at the same time. Students do not always explain heat-exchange phenomena as interactions. For example, students may say that objects tend to cool down or release heat spontaneously without acknowledging that the object has come in contact with a cooler object or area (AAAS 2009).
  • In studies of fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade students, a commonly held idea was that heat transfers from a hot object and cold transfers from a cold object. Students who believe this conceptualize heat as a transferring material that is separated into categories of hot and cold (Choi et al. 2001).
  • Cold is often thought of as an entity like heat, with many children thinking that cold is the opposite of heat rather than being part of the same continuum (Driver et al. 1994).
  • Studies show that children have difficulty thinking of heat conduction when they feel a cold surface. They seem to think that the sensation of coldness is due to something leaving a cold object and entering the body. In a study of 300 15-year-old students, most thought of coldness as being the entity that was transferred (Brooks et al. 1984).
  • Researchers have found that children have difficulty understanding heat-related ideas (Harris 1981). It has been suggested that much of the confusion about heat comes from the words we use and that children tend to think of heat as a substance that flows from one place to another.

Related NSTA Resources

Brown, P. 2020. Teaching about heat and temperature using an investigative demonstration. In Instructional sequence matters, grades 3–5: Explore before explain, P. Brown, 53–64. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

Brown, P. 2011. Teaching about heat and temperature using an investigative demonstration. Science Scope 35 (4): 31–35.

Colburn, A. 2009. The prepared practitioner: Understanding heat and temperature. The Science Teacher 76 (1): 10.

Crissman, S., S. Lacy, J. Nordine, and R. Tobin. 2015. Looking through the energy lens. Science and Children 52 (6): 26–31.

NSTA Science Object, Energy: Thermal energy, heat, and temperature. resource/?id=10.2505/7/SCB-EN.3.1.

German, S. 2016. Predicting, explaining, and observing thermal energy transfer. Science Scope 40 (4): 68–70.

NGSS Archived Webinar: Core Ideas—Energy, com/watch?v=E-97mwnhl40&index=8&list=PL2pHc_ BEFW2JjWYua2_z3ccHEd6x5jIBK.

Nordine, J. 2016. Teaching energy across the sciences, K–12. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

Nordine, J., and D. Fortus. 2017. Core idea PS3: Energy. In Disciplinary core ideas: Reshaping teaching and learning, ed. R. G. Duncan, J. Krajcik, and A. E. Rivet. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

Nordine, J., and S. Wessnigk. 2016. Exposing hidden energy transfers with inexpensive thermal imaging cameras. Science Scope 39 (7): 25–32.

Suggestions for Instruction and Assessment

  • Using the science practice of developing and using models, have students draw arrows to show and explain the transfer of thermal energy via heat to or from three different objects at different temperatures placed on a table in the classroom: a cup of hot chocolate, an ice cube, and a cup of water at room temperature.
  • The probe “Cold Spoons” in Uncovering Student Ideas in Physical Science, Volume 3 can be used to further probe students’ ideas using a conduction phenomenon (Keeley and Cooper 2019).
  • Have students use the concepts of heat and thermal energy to explain why a glass of water will get warmer when left out and why, in other instances, it will get colder.
  • In upper elementary grades, students can investigate warm and cold objects, observing how heat seems to spread from one area to another. Starting with objects that are warmer than their immediate environment to investigate how heat moves may make more sense than starting with objects that are colder than their surrounding environment.
  • Computer probeware may be more effective than ordinary thermometers in helping students observe small changes in temperature as an object is heated or cooled.
  • Be aware that many students think that cold moves. When developing the idea of heat moving from warmer to cooler areas, have students generate examples of everyday phrases that describe the movement of cold, such as “shut the door or you will let all the cold in.” Engage students in critiquing these everyday phrases in terms of how energy moves, and discuss how our everyday language is sometimes very different from the way we describe phenomena scientifically.
  • Explicitly address the idea of interactions when teaching about energy transfer so that students do not develop the notion of energy transfer being a one-sided interaction. Have students identify the materials or objects involved in the interactions.
  • Instruction on heat and transfer of energy should be carried out over the long term and not done in one short unit. These are difficult and abstract ideas, and it takes time and multiple experiences for students to use these ideas scientifically.
  • High school students should have multiple opportunities to use ideas about heat in multiple contexts, including chemical, nuclear, geologic, and biological contexts. Revisiting ideas in different contexts reinforces the concept and helps students see how powerful and crosscutting the “big idea” of energy transfer is in explaining a range of phenomena.
  • Heat and how thermal energy flows within and between objects is a fundamental concern of engineers in designing products or solutions to problems. Have students generate examples of how engineers use the idea that energy flows from warmer to cooler objects or areas when designing products or solving problems.

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). 2009. Benchmarks for science literacy. New York: Oxford University Press. index.php.

Brooks, A., H. Briggs, B. Bell, and R. Driver. 1984. Aspects of secondary students’ understanding of heat. Centre for Studies in Science and Mathematics Education, University of Leeds, Leeds, England.

Choi, H., E. Kim, S. Paik, K. Lee, and W. Chung. 2001. Investigating elementary students’ understanding levels and alternative conceptions of heat and temperature. Elementary Science Education 20: 123–138.

Driver, R., A. Squires, P. Rushworth, and V. Wood- Robinson. 1994. Making sense of secondary science: Research into children’s ideas. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Harris, W. F. 1981. Heat in undergraduate education, or isn’t it time we abandoned the theory of caloric? International Journal of Mechanical Engineering Education 9: 317–325.

Keeley, P., and S. Cooper. 2019. Cold spoons. In Uncovering student ideas in physical science, volume 3: 32 new matter and energy formative assessment probes, P. Keeley and S. Cooper, 201–206. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

National Research Council (NRC). 2012. A framework for K–12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

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