Ice Cube Challenge: Engineering in Action

Sixth-grade scientists have been busy learning about energy on a molecular level in an ongoing project—the Invertebrate Ice Cube Challenge. Pam Sever, 6th grade science teacher, assigned the hands-on, student-centered, inquiry-based project to her students to deepen their understanding of energy.
Students were first presented with a problem: BEMP has been having trouble keeping their samples cold while doing Surface Arthropod Pitfall trapping. They are currently in search of a new and better-insulated product that can help maintain a cold environment using ice. Due to the extremely high temperatures and the intense New Mexico sun, maintaining a cold storage container for 30 minutes has become a challenge.
In small teams, students approached this problem by first designing a prototype that would help prevent the ice cubes from melting and subsequently warming the arthropods that were found in the pitfall traps. However, there were a few extra requirements: the container had to be able to hold one ice cube, fit inside a paper lunch sack, and cost less than $25 in construction materials. They had the option to buy a variety of materials that cost from $1 to $5, including items like rubber bands, paper, cotton balls, aluminum foil, and tape.
They worked in groups to design the prototype and then the following week, they built and tested the prototype by taking it out into the bosque for a 30-minute walk. Prototype success was measured by the amount of water melted in each container—the less water that was present, the better the design.
“I'm impressed with their developing understanding of the scientific process,” said Ms. Sever. “They clearly showed how to design an experiment where they could compare the efficacy of their results with the results of other students and of the control group.” She continued, “Additionally, they are starting to figure out on their own how to make their next iteration of this project better!”
With the results of this project, the students will come up with questions that will guide the rest of their energy unit and then will re-design and test their prototypes again as a culminating project. Ultimately, their understanding of energy on a molecular level will help them to understand weather, climate, cellular functions, kinetic and potential energy, chemical reactions, and more.