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Science Sensors Activity Kit: Hot or Not

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Review Synopsis: by afterschool program expert Sara Granovetter

Hot or Not: Heat Changes Kit provides young children with insight into the nature of scientific inquiry. It lets them carry out scientific experiments in a simple, direct way appropriate for their age group. The activities engage children by appealing to their immediate sensations: warm fingers produce color changes, rubbing hands together produces heat. Children can immediately see and feel these correlations and are encouraged to experiment with what they know best: their own bodies.

There are several drawbacks to this activity. First, the activity guidelines do not provide much structure for the implementation of the activity. Instructors would have to plan and impose their own structure. Without tight organization and teacher control, this activity could easily unravel. Second, some of the scientific concepts are too difficult for children of the age group to grasp in such a short time. Overall, this activity could be a good fit for afterschool programs and instructors.
Full Review:
When I first pulled off the lid of the Hot or Not: Heat Changes Kit, I was unimpressed by the contents: two unremarkable black foam squares (Fickle Foam squares), a plastic cup, a rubber band, and a liquid crystal thermometer that resembled a business card. However, upon leafing through the instructions and trying out the activities, I think that the activity is completely appropriate for young students (about age 4 to age 10) in some afterschool contexts. The success of this activity depends on the following factors: 1) Instructors must provide their own structure/organization when carrying out the activity. 2) It is only appropriate for small groups of children, ideally fewer than four per group. Furthermore, although this activity has high educational value, some of the concepts may be out of reach for the target age group.

One of the best features of this product is that it is educational and highly entertaining for young children. The activities involve simple, perception-based actions like touching ice, observing color changes, and noticing bodily sensations. Children in this age range may lose interest if they are not constantly stimulated, but in Hot or Not, experimental results are immediate and visceral, and children will be delighted at the power of their bodies to create color and heat.

But this product goes beyond simple entertainment. In being surprised by the results they observe, children are already learning something about the nature of scientific experimentation. The observation that body heat produces color changes already shows that familiar perceptions (color and heat) can be related in unfamiliar ways. The instructions include open-ended questions and activities that reinforce the concept of correlation. For example, children first touch the Fickle Foam squares without special preparation. Then, they put their fingers in ice water, touch the squares again, and then do the same with hot water, observing the different results. Finally, based on their observations, they are asked to guess what causes the color changes (temperature). In this way, Hot or Not is a great basic introduction to scientific inquiry: children make observations, ask questions, and test hypothesis, just like real scientists do.

This activity can teach children about cooperation and social communication as well. For instance, if many children touch the Fickle Foam pad at once, the heat will cause the colors to change drastically, giving the children a sense of group synergy. One of the activities asks children to work in groups and find out "who is hot" and "who is cool" by placing their fingers on the squares. However, since supplies are limited, there is also opportunity for discord and fighting over turns—it's the type of activity where everybody will want to constantly touch the materials. Indeed, this activity may be too entertaining. Since the activity guidelines include primarily open-ended questions with a smattering of scientific facts, it is up to the afterschool instructor to impose structure. Without a tight organizational plan, the activity could easily turn into a giggle fest of children vying to touch the pads and make the colors change. It may be so mesmerizing that students will lose sight of the educational value. Instructors will need to create a rigorous lesson plan prior to introducing this activity to their students—a luxury that many afterschool teachers may not have.

I do have a few concerns that I think an instructor would need to consider, and perhaps address, before using this kit. One concern I have is that some of the ideas introduced in this activity seem too sophisticated for the target age group. For example, the activity guidelines mentions concepts like liquid crystal, friction, and energy being converted to heat. However, there is little explanation of these concepts. Children would need background knowledge or extensive preparation to get the most out of this activity. Or, the instructor would have to spend significant time explaining these concepts. I see two additional flaws that relate to the quality of parts and overall value of this activity. The Fickle Foam pads are not very responsive. Touching, pressing, and even rubbing the pads sometimes produces no effect. To get any result (without using ice or heated water), I had to rub the pads vigorously between my hands. This is contrary to what the instructions indicate. I see little potential for reusing this activity. The materials and guidelines are limited. Instructors would have to be creative and design their own experiments (probably integrating additional supplies) to reuse the materials. In this way, it may not be useful for afterschool instructors with limited supplies and preparation time.

In summary, "Hot or Not" may offer young children insight into the nature of scientific inquiry. It also has a high entertainment value and provides the opportunity for group learning. However, its success is contingent upon instructors' abilities to provide additional structure for this activity, maintain tight control over the class, and write a lesson plan prior to sharing the activity with students.