The Science of Ice – Inquiry Activities for Middle School

With the Winter Olympics right around the corner and much of the east coast battling winter storms, many families are cuddled up inside learning about the history of the games.  But for the skaters, curlers, hockey players, lugers, and bobsledders in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, their sport is about just one thing ~ ice.  With the recent popularity of Disney’s Frozen – there is no better time to explore the science of ice.   How much do you really know about ice, after all?

science of ice

NBC Learn and NBC Sports, in partnership with the National Science Foundation, have created a collection of ten short videos focused on the science and engineering design efforts behind Olympic and Paralympic athletes and the tools that each hopes will help them bring home the gold,  The Science and Engineering of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.

Begin your science of ice unit study by watching Science of Ice from the video collection to see if your thinking aligns with current ideas.  The short video discusses some of the physical and chemical properties of solid water and how this substance is produced to optimize performance for a particular ice sport. In this short video, athletes J.R. Celski, Britanny Bowe, and Gracie Gold talk about the ice they like and mathematician Ken Golden of the University of Utah explains why the unique surface of ice enables the slide and glide of winter sports.

Steps you can use with your students to initiate inquiry activities:

  • Guide a discussion to find out what students know about ice and ice rinks.  If possible, show students examples of different forms of ice (snow, shaved ice, crushed ice, a frosty glass, etc.).
  • Show The Science of Ice and encourage students to take notes while they watch.
  • Stimulate discussion of the molecular structure of ice and how ice is made in Olympic venues.
  • Choose one question and phrase it in such a way as to be researchable and/or testable. For example: How does the cleanliness of water affect the properties of ice? How does the salinity of water affect the freezing point?
  • Collect measurable data and create graphs to communicate what you learned.
  • Challenge students to make a model of an ice rink (use a petri dish) and vary the properties of ice. Choose one question and phrase it in such a way as to reflect an engineering problem that is researchable and/or testable.  For example: What is the quickest way to repair holes (pits and scratches) in ice during competitions? What is the best way to get a smooth surface across the surface of the ice?

When undertaking these activities, you may wish to consider using an Non-contact Infrared Thermometer.  An infrared thermometer is a thermometer which infers temperature from a portion of the thermal radiation emitted by the surface of the ice. For the purposes of these inquiry activities, an infrared thermometer will give a more accurate temperature reading.

Wanting more?  The Science of Ice Integration Guide (click link for PDF), produced by the National Science Teachers Association, provides additional lessons, activities, and ideas for research, teamwork, projects, and interdisciplinary connections.