Modeling Thermal Convection
Directions: Use the materials listed and the procedures provided to model thermal
convection in a fluid system.

One rectangular, plastic bin (approximately 13″ long x 8″ wide and 5″ deep,
such as a dish-washing bin)

Four 5″ x 5″ squares of thick cardboard (1/4″ thick)

Five 12-ounce polystyrene or plastic cups

Hot water

Ice cubes

Melting chocolate or wax

Paper towels for spills

Red and blue liquid food coloring, each with dropper or Beral pipette

Very cold water
As you construct the model, take care to clean up any liquid spills or dropped
objects so that they do not become a slip/fall hazard.
Part 1: Convection
1. Fill the bin with very cold water (a little ice is preferable), up to a depth of 4
2. On a flat table or desk, place four of the polystyrene (or plastic) cups upside
down on top of the four squares of cardboard. These cups will support the bin
of water so that a fifth cup of hot water can slide underneath. Place the bin
on top of the four inverted cups so that the bin is steady.
3. Draw some of the red food coloring up into the pipette and then insert the
pipette into the center of the cold-water bin to deposit the dye just above the
bottom of the bin. Expel the food coloring slowly so that it stays (mostly) in a
dense, circular area.
4. Using the blue food coloring, place two more circles of dye on either side of
the red dye, about two inches to the left and to the right. Remember to expel
the dye slowly so that it stays in dense circles near the bottom of the water
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5. Fill the last polystyrene cup with very hot tap water. Carefully slide it under
the cold-water bin so that it is under the circle of red dye.
6. Observe how the dyes move within the bin as thermal energy travels through
the system. It may take a few minutes to see the changes.
Part 2: Surface Forces
7. Empty the plastic bin and refill with fresh cold water to a depth of 4 inches.
8. Repeat steps 3 and 4 to add food coloring to the bin.
9. To model tectonic plates floating atop the asthenosphere, melt some
chocolate or wax. Using a spoon, add the melted substance to the cold water
in two or three locations. You may need to place an ice cube atop each
floater to help it solidify, or to model a more massive plate.
10. Repeat steps 5 and 6, and record your observations. In which direction do
the floating pieces move?
11. Repeat steps 7–10 two times to try new locations for the floating chocolate
or wax, or to be certain that the behaviors you observe are consistent.
1. Describe the motion of the red and blue dyes in the bin. Draw a simple,
labeled diagram to show the movement of matter and energy. Use arrows to
show how the dyes spread out, come together, or change direction. Then,
provide a brief written explanation to supplement your drawing. 4 points
© 2019 Pearson Online & Blended Learning K–12 USA. All rights reserved.
2. What is the role of density changes in a convection cycle? 2 points
3. Compare what happens with the red dye in the water bin with what happens
to a hot air balloon surrounded by cool air. 2 points
4. Recall that matter cannot move without energy. What is the energy source
that moves the red dye? What is the energy source that moves the blue dye?
2 points
© 2019 Pearson Online & Blended Learning K–12 USA. All rights reserved.
5. Why is the motion of the water in the bin considered a cycle? What could
stop the cycle? What could accelerate it? 3 points
6. Describe the forces that moved the floating pieces of chocolate (or wax)
during Part 2 of the activity. How did the forces relate to the direction of
water flow in the bin? 2 points
7. Water has a low viscosity (thickness). How might the movement of the dyes
change if a fluid with a higher viscosity is used? 1 point
© 2019 Pearson Online & Blended Learning K–12 USA. All rights reserved.
8. Evaluate the food coloring and water bin model. What are its strengths and
limitations in modeling thermal convection? 4 points
© 2019 Pearson Online & Blended Learning K–12 USA. All rights reserved.
Image Attribution
Page 3: OSweetNature / Shutterstock
© 2019 Pearson Online & Blended Learning K–12 USA. All rights reserved.

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