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Solar Water Heater

Landon B. Gennetten, Lauren Cooper, Malinda Schaefer Zarske, Denise W. Carlson, TeachEngineering from Integrated Teaching and Learning Program

Student teams design and build solar water heating devices that mimic those used in residences to capture energy in the form of solar radiation and convert it to thermal energy. In this activity, students gain a better understanding of the three different types of heat transfer, each of which plays a role in the solar water heater design. Once the model devices are constructed, students perform efficiency calculations and compare designs.

Activity takes six to eight 45-minute class periods. Additional materials necessary.

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

ngssSee how this Activity supports the Next Generation Science Standards»
High School: 2 Performance Expectations, 5 Disciplinary Core Ideas, 5 Cross Cutting Concepts, 12 Science and Engineering Practices

Climate Literacy
About Teaching Climate Literacy

Sunlight warms the planet
About Teaching Principle 1
Other materials addressing 1a

Energy Literacy

Environmental quality is impacted by energy choices.
Other materials addressing:
7.3 Environmental quality.
Many different units are used to quantify energy.
Other materials addressing:
1.7 Units of energy.
The energy of a system or object that results in its temperature is called thermal energy.
Other materials addressing:
1.2 Thermal energy.
Humans transfer and transform energy from the environment into forms useful for human endeavors.
Other materials addressing:
4.1 Humans transfer and transform energy.
Different sources of energy and the different ways energy can be transformed, transported and stored each have different benefits and drawbacks.
Other materials addressing:
4.7 Different sources of energy have different benefits and drawbacks.

Excellence in Environmental Education Guidelines

1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:B) Designing investigations
Other materials addressing:
B) Designing investigations.
1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:C) Collecting information
Other materials addressing:
C) Collecting information.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.1 The Earth as a Physical System:C) Energy
Other materials addressing:
C) Energy.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.4 Environment and Society:D) Technology
Other materials addressing:
D) Technology.

Notes From Our Reviewers The CLEAN collection is hand-picked and rigorously reviewed for scientific accuracy and classroom effectiveness. Read what our review team had to say about this resource below or learn more about how CLEAN reviews teaching materials
Teaching Tips | Science | Pedagogy | Technical Details

Teaching Tips

  • Educator would ideally also draw connections to students' lives and personal energy use.
  • Educators may want to omit specific heat calculations particularly for non-physics students.
  • The metal storage tank would be more efficient if made of plastic; gluing to metal is more difficult.
  • The copper rods in Plan B need a more thorough explanation (Copper rods increase heating surface area).
  • Time needed for this activity might not be commensurate with the intended learning for this activity - educator might assign the construction as a term project.

About the Science

  • A really strong, well-organized activity, most suited for physics students (heat transfer concept and math level), but can be taught in other classes if supported adequately.
  • Good background information provided for educator.

About the Pedagogy

  • Offers both performance assessment (building and testing of solar heater) and good discussion questions.
  • Excellent illustrations help students through the building process.
  • Good activity for kinesthetic learners as it requires designing, building, and testing.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • Sophisticated design requires purchase of a fairly significant amount of copper tubing to construct the water heater.

Next Generation Science Standards See how this Activity supports:

High School

Performance Expectations: 2


HS-PS3-1: Create a computational model to calculate the change in the energy of one component in a system when the change in energy of the other component(s) and energy flows in and out of the system are known.

Disciplinary Core Ideas: 5


HS-PS3.A1:Energy is a quantitative property of a system that depends on the motion and interactions of matter and radiation within that system. That there is a single quantity called energy is due to the fact that a system’s total energy is conserved, even as, within the system, energy is continually transferred from one object to another and between its various possible forms.

HS-PS3.B1:Conservation of energy means that the total change of energy in any system is always equal to the total energy transferred into or out of the system.

HS-PS3.B2:Energy cannot be created or destroyed, but it can be transported from one place to another and transferred between systems

HS-PS3.D1:Although energy cannot be destroyed, it can be converted to less useful forms—for example, to thermal energy in the surrounding environment.

Cross Cutting Concepts: 5

Cause and effect, Systems and System Models, Energy and Matter, Structure and Function

HS-C2.3:Systems can be designed to cause a desired effect.

HS-C4.3:Models (e.g., physical, mathematical, computer models) can be used to simulate systems and interactions—including energy, matter, and information flows—within and between systems at different scales.

HS-C4.4:Models can be used to predict the behavior of a system, but these predictions have limited precision and reliability due to the assumptions and approximations inherent in models.

HS-C5.3:Energy cannot be created or destroyed—only moves between one place and another place, between objects and/or fields, or between systems.

HS-C6.1:Investigating or designing new systems or structures requires a detailed examination of the properties of different materials, the structures of different components, and connections of components to reveal its function and/or solve a problem.

Science and Engineering Practices: 12

Asking Questions and Defining Problems, Developing and Using Models, Planning and Carrying Out Investigations, Analyzing and Interpreting Data, Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking, Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions, Engaging in Argument from Evidence, Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

HS-P1.8:Define a design problem that involves the development of a process or system with interacting components and criteria and constraints that may include social, technical, and/or environmental considerations. 

HS-P2.6:Develop and/or use a model (including mathematical and computational) to generate data to support explanations, predict phenomena, analyze systems, and/or solve problems.

HS-P3.1:Plan an investigation or test a design individually and collaboratively to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence as part of building and revising models, supporting explanations for phenomena, or testing solutions to problems. Consider possible confounding variables or effects and evaluate the investigation’s design to ensure variables are controlled.

HS-P3.3:Plan and conduct an investigation or test a design solution in a safe and ethical manner including considerations of environmental, social, and personal impacts.

HS-P3.6:Manipulate variables and collect data about a complex model of a proposed process or system to identify failure points or improve performance relative to criteria for success or other variables.

HS-P4.6: Analyze data to identify design features or characteristics of the components of a proposed process or system to optimize it relative to criteria for success.

HS-P5.4:Use simple limit cases to test mathematical expressions, computer programs, algorithms, or simulations of a process or system to see if a model “makes sense” by comparing the outcomes with what is known about the real world.

HS-P5.5:Apply ratios, rates, percentages, and unit conversions in the context of complicated measurement problems involving quantities with derived or compound units (such as mg/mL, kg/m3, acre-feet, etc.).

HS-P6.3:Apply scientific ideas, principles, and/or evidence to provide an explanation of phenomena and solve design problems, taking into account possible unanticipated effects.

HS-P6.5:Design, evaluate, and/or refine a solution to a complex real-world problem, based on scientific knowledge, student-generated sources of evidence, prioritized criteria, and tradeoff considerations.

HS-P7.6:Evaluate competing design solutions to a real-world problem based on scientific ideas and principles, empirical evidence, and/or logical arguments regarding relevant factors (e.g. economic, societal, environmental, ethical considerations).

HS-P8.4: Evaluate the validity and reliability of and/or synthesize multiple claims, methods, and/or designs that appear in scientific and technical texts or media reports, verifying the data when possible.

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