Use Design Thinking to Stay Cool

This unit was designed in collaboration with teachers from the Campbell Union School District

Students use tools and materials to design and build an object that will keep ice water cold for 30 minutes when placed in direct sunlight. Students test different materials to determine how well they keep an ice cube insulated. They compare their insulated ice cube to a control ice cube in direct sunlight and record the weight of the insulated cube each minute up to 20 minutes. The unit culminates in a design challenge where students create a container for ice water that keeps it at the same temperature for 30 minutes. Student teams share their results, and compare and contrast differences between each team’s approaches in solving the problem. Student teams explain how their designs effectively minimized the warming effects of the sun and how the concepts of weight and temperature helped them in their analysis.

Educational Outcomes

  • Students explain how the sun’s warmth has benefits and can also be harmful and how certain everyday objects help block the rays of the sun.
  • Students identify and compare the measurable properties of materials useful for insulation
  • Students apply information on sunlight’s warming effect on the Earth’s surface to collaboratively design, build, and test a structure that reduces warming caused by the sun.

STEAM Integration

Students learn about the heat of the sun and how sunlight warms the Earth’s surface by asking questions, making observations, and gathering scientific information. They explore the properties of materials that are ideal for insulation and preventing the flow of heat to or from water, applying a combination of drawings and comparisons. Student teams iterate, prototype, and test a design until it meets defined criteria and constraints, exemplifying an application of science and engineering principles to address a real-world design problem.


CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.K.MD.A.1: Describe measurable attributes of objects, such as length or weight. Describe several measurable attributes of a single object.

CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.K.MD.A.2: Directly compare two objects with a measurable attribute in common, to see which object has “more of”/”less of” the attribute, and describe the difference. For example, directly compare the heights of two children and describe one child as taller/shorter.

NGSS K-PS3-2: Use tools and materials to design and build a structure that will reduce the warming effect of sunlight on an area.

NGSS K-2-ETS1-1: Ask questions, make observations, and gather information about a situation people want to change to define a simple problem that can be solved through the development of a new or improved object or tool.

NGSS K-2-ETS1-2: Develop a simple sketch, drawing, or physical model to illustrate how the shape of an object helps it function as needed to solve a given problem.

NGSS K-2-ETS1-3: Analyze data from tests of two objects designed to solve the same problem to compare the strengths and weaknesses of how each performs.

Unit Materials

This unit can be completed using the RAFT Makerspace-in-a-Box kit. The kit contains many items with various attributes useful for different purposes by students. Examples include rigid items for structure such as craft sticks, plastic rods, and cardboard tubes; flexible/cuttable items such as foam, chenille stems, straws, and cardstock for making customized structures; and items serving as connectors such as paper clips, binder clips, and stickers/tape. Note: Some lessons call for additional items not included in the kit. We encourage facilitators to be creative and provide other materials to explore in the lessons. Questions? Email us:

Maker Journal Pages

Students record their learning in Maker Journal pages, sheets containing tasks and prompts specific to each lesson in the unit, including the culminating design challenge. These sheets encourage students to reflect on their learning throughout the unit and can be used as part of a larger student portfolio with which to demonstrate growth in concept knowledge and design skills. These sheets can be copied for students or recreated by students in a bound notebook.

Tips for an Active Classroom

Communication is critical in the design process. Students need to be allowed to talk, stand, and move around to acquire materials. Help students become successful and care for the success of others by asking them to predict problems that might arise in the active environment and ask them to suggest strategies for their own behavior that will ensure a positive working environment for all students and teachers.

Design Thinking Overview

Our integrated STEAM units incorporate a non-linear design thinking model, with each phase being repeatable to allow students to rework and iterate while developing a deeper understanding of the core concepts. The phases of the design thinking model are:

Empathize: Work to fully understand the experience of the user

Define: Process and synthesize findings from empathy work to form a user point of view

Ideate: Explore a wide range and variety of possible ideas for solutions

Prototype: Transform ideas into a physical form with which to learn and interact

Test: Refine prototypes, learn more about the user, and refine original point of view

Lesson 1: Blocking the Sun’s Rays (45 min)

Students learn about the benefits and potential harm due to excessive sun exposure. They draw pictures of everyday objects that help block sunlight and explain how the shape of the objects may minimize the sun’s warming effects.

Learning Targets

  • Students will be able to explain how the sun’s warmth has benefits and can also be harmful
  • Students will be able to explain how and why certain everyday objects help block the rays of the sun

Essential Questions

  • Why would you need to protect something from the sun?
  • How do we block the sun in everyday life?

Lesson Materials


  1. Before starting, access the web resources/videos and have them ready for use.
  2. Display an image or model of the sun for students to observe. Use real images instead of clip art to provide a real-world view of the sun. Here is a Google image search for convenience.
  3. Ask students to share their knowledge of the sun (see sample student-teacher dialog below). Record responses on chart paper or on a whiteboard for later reference.
  4. Display the video Kindergarten Sun Explanation for students or have them access the video on their own. After the video, ask students to share their observations. Record student responses.
  5. Repeat step 4 for the video Sun Safety.
  6. Refer students to the lesson Maker Journal page. Ask them to think about and draw pictures of familiar, everyday items they believe can block the sun’s rays.
  7. Ask for some responses after students have worked for 5-10 minutes. Direct students to their responses from step 3 above. Solicit more ideas about the sun to add to the list and keep for related lessons.

Sample teacher and student dialog

T: “Today we’ll be learning about the sun and the warmth it provides. What do you already know about the sun?”

S: “It’s hot, melts snow, and keeps us from getting too cold.”

T: “That’s right! Today we’ll build on what we already know about the sun and then learn more by watching some videos. Then we’ll use what we learned to draw some common items made with different materials that you think would block some of the sun’s rays, keeping us from getting too hot!”


Conduct a whole group discussion to allow all students to share, discuss and compare their findings around different ways to block the warming effect of the sun’s rays.

Lesson 2: Which Materials Provide the Best Insulation? (45 min)

Students test different materials by putting them around plastic cups and then determining how well each prevents an ice cube inside the cup from melting in the sun. They draw pictures of a melting “control” ice cube in an uninsulated cup at different time intervals. They compare them to drawings of ice cubes in insulated cups to determine the material that results in the longest melting time. This reveals the material that is the best insulator in the set of material provided to students.

Learning Targets

  • Students will be able to identify materials ideal for mitigating the sun’s warming effects
  • Students will be able to conduct a controlled experiment

Essential Questions

  • Which materials minimize the warming effects of the sun?
  • Which are the best materials to keep an ice cube from melting in a cup when exposed to the sun?


  • Pen or pencil
  • Chart paper or whiteboard w/ dry erase markers
  • Internet access
  • Computer and/or mobile device
  • Plastic cups (2-4 oz.)
  • Ice cube trays
  • Water
  • Scissors
  • Fasteners: paperclips, binder clips, rubber bands
  • Adhesives: glue, tape, stickers/labels
  • Various building materials: thread/yarn, foam, foil, plastic wrap, fabrics, paper, other
  • Web resources: A Melting Ice Cube | An Ice Cube Insulator Project


  1. Preparation before lesson: Use ice cube trays to freeze water into equal size cubes. Access videos and have them ready for student/class access. Arrange to be near a location that gets direct sunlight.
  2. Review the learning from the previous lesson with students on materials that may block, or reduce, the sun’s rays.
  3. Show students the video A Melting Ice Cube or have them access it on their own. After the video, solicit observations from the students: “What did you see or notice? What happened to the ice?” Record student responses on whiteboard or chart paper.
  4. Show students the video An Ice Cube Insulator Project. Ask students to share what they notice in the video, focusing on the materials the students used. Record their responses.
  5. Position all materials in a common area for student use. Label the area “Insulation Materials.”
  6. Provide each student, or student team, with 2 identical plastic cups.
  7. Each student/team chooses a different material to surround one plastic cup. Fasteners and/or adhesives may be used to secure the material to the cup (assist as needed). This is the insulated cup.
  8. Distribute ice cubes to each student/team. Students put an ice cube in the plain plastic cup and another cube in the insulated cup. Make sure the insulated cup is enclosed in the material after putting in the ice cube.
  9. Students position both cups so they are simultaneously exposed to the sun.
  10. Keep time for the students and announce each 5-minute interval. Students draw both ice cubes every 5 minutes in the lesson Maker Journal page.
  11. After 25-30 minutes, students/teams compare their drawings and observations. Help students use this data to determine which materials provided the best insulation from the sun.

Sample teacher and student dialog

T: “We learned in a previous lesson that certain items are useful for blocking the sun’s rays. Today we’ll explore this idea further by watching a few videos and by conducting an experiment.”

S: “Will we get to play with materials?”

T: “Yes! We’ll use materials to protect an ice cube from the sun’s rays. You’ll draw pictures of an ice cube as it melts to see which material blocks the sun the best.”

S: “Will we get to work in groups?”

T: “Yes, you can work in teams. Each of you will test a different material and then we’ll compare our results.”


Student teams discuss and compare their findings and share different viewpoints. Students should compare their drawings and explain their ideas on the effect of the sun’s warmth on an ice cube, and how some materials are better insulators. Assist and provide examples needed.

Design Challenge: Staying Cool (60 min)

Students apply their learning from previous lessons to design an insulated device/structure that can minimize the warming effects of the sun and meet a set of criteria and constraints. Students share their results, and compare and contrast their approaches to solving the problem.

Design Prompts

  • You are asked to keep a snowman from melting in the sun
  • Use different materials to create a structure or device to protect the snowman and keep it from melting


  • RAFT Makerspace-in-a-Box
  • Chart paper or poster paper
  • Markers, pens, pencils
  • Tape/glue
  • Binder clips and/or paper clips
  • Scissors, staplers, hole punches, rulers
  • Ice cubes
  • Plastic cups/containers
  • Other materials at facilitator’s discretion


  1. Present and explain the design prompt(s) for the challenge (above).
  2. Review and define the criteria and constraints listed below and these terms: iteration, prototype. Alternatively, you can define them together as a class, providing students with voice and choice.
  3. Assign student teams or assign students to specific groups.
  4. Students follow steps in the design process and record their progress in the challenge Maker Journal.
  5. Students share and compare their design solutions, reflect on the data collection/calculations, and provide peer feedback for improvement on future iterations.

The criteria and constraints for this challenge are listed below. Criteria are the requirements for the design or its expected functions or abilities. Constraints are limitations on the design such as time, space, available materials, money, etc. The criteria and constraints are also listed in the Maker Journal for this challenge.

Criteria & Constraints

  • Device/structure includes 3-4 different materials
  • Device/structure is portable/moveable
  • Device/structure protects ice cube for 25-30 minutes without the ice completely melting
  • Device/structure completed on time (suggested duration 20-25 minutes; facilitator’s discretion)

Ideate Phase

During the ideation phase students should have ample time to discuss and research their ideas and potential impact. All ideas are welcome during the ideation phase, and students should be encouraged to think big. Students should capture their ideas using the Maker Journal or a digital tool (Google doc, other). Keep in mind students may return to this phase as many times as needed.

Prototype Phase

Students select one of the designs from the ideation stage to create using various materials. Initially they will have a rough prototype of the design that should eventually get better as they test it and make refinements. Students may also want to experiment with solutions that focus on changes in behavior. In this case encourage them to create a detailed plan as well as a device that will help to remind them or encourage this change in behavior. Students use the Maker Journal to draw and label their designs. Students may need to return to this phase as they iterate.

Test Phase

Students self evaluate as they test their designs in the Maker Journal. This activity should be focused on brevity and conducted at a brisk pace. Students should be going through ideas, building prototypes and evaluating their designs for at least three or four design cycles. Build time should be quick and designs should be kept simple. Students may return to this phase as they iterate.


Student groups discuss and compare their solutions and give each other feedback on the insulation device. Students should also give suggestions for improvements to the design for future iterations. Conduct a whole group discussion to allow all students to share, discuss and compare their solutions. Help students to focus their thinking on data collected and interpreting their calculations to better define the design prompts.