Science Project: Insulation

Seal in water

This science experiment can help explain why seals like this one are comfy even in extremely cold water.
Image: Shutterstock

This is a good science project for children as young as preschool, maybe kids who are still learning their animals. In this one, we’re looking at polar bears, walruses, seals, penguins, whales–you can tailor it to your child’s interests.

How do these animals stay warm? Your kid probably knows how cold they can feel in an unheated pool, even on a scorching day. But these animals live in the water around ice and snow.

The answer, of course, is blubber, the layer of fat under their skin. It acts like a sweater, but how?

For this project, you will need:

  • A bowl of icy water
  • Vegetable shortening
  • A couple of latex or vinyl gloves
  • Plastic wrap

(The gloves and wrap are to make clean-up a snap.)

First, ask your child to put their hands into the ice water. Count or use a stopwatch to see how long they’re willing to keep their hands in the water. It probably won’t be long!

Next, put a glove on their hand. Have them use their gloved hand to scoop out a handful of shortening, and make a fist. They’ll probably like this part since it’s messy! With your own gloved hands, smear more shortening thickly around the outside of their fist, and then wrap all of that with plastic wrap.

Once they’re all coated and wrapped up, have them put their hand back in the ice water. They should notice right away now much less the cold seems to reach them. Time them again. Odds are good they’ll get bored before they’re too chilled to stay in the water. So this is a good time to talk about how the shortening is just like the fat that animals (and people) have under their skins, and it keeps them warm, even in cold water. Some animals have to get out and warm up from time to time, like walruses and polar bears, and some can just live in the water forever like whales, kept cozy by their blubber and thick skin.

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