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Simulation Activity: Understanding Specific Heat Mark as Favorite (23 Favorites)

ACTIVITY in Heat, Specific Heat, Temperature, Experimental Design. Last updated January 29, 2024.


In this simulation activity, students will play the role of engineer in deciding which materials are the best candidates for a building project. They will calculate the specific heat capacity of various building materials to determine which ones meet the criteria for building an energy efficient home. Students will also do a cost analysis to determine which material to use in their building project. On the student activity sheet, they will answer additional conceptual and numerical questions related to specific heat capacity.

Grade Level

High School

NGSS Alignment

This activity will help prepare your students to meet the performance expectations in the following standards:

  • MS-PS3-4: Plan an investigation to determine the relationships among the energy transferred, the type of matter, the mass, and the change in the average kinetic energy of particles as measured by temperature of the sample.
  • HS-ETS1-3: Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.
  • Scientific and Engineering Practices:
    • Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking
    • Developing and Using Models
    • Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions


By the end of this activity, students should be able to:

  • Explain how specific heat capacity is related to energy, mass, and temperature change.
  • Calculate specific heat capacity of a material and solve for related variables using the specific heat equation.
  • Evaluate options for materials to use in a building project and select the best one based on multiple criteria.

Chemistry Topics

This activity supports students’ understanding of:

  • Specific heat capacity
  • Heat
  • Temperature
  • Engineering design
  • Experimental design


Teacher Preparation: 5 minutes

Lesson: 30 minutes



  • No specific safety precautions need to be observed for this activity.

Teacher Notes

  • This simulation is designed to be used during a unit on energy and thermodynamics as it deals primarily with specific heat capacity.
  • Students are asked to select the best building material for a new home using specific heat capacity (representing energy efficiency) and cost as their primary criteria. Analysis question 3 at the end of the student activity is a good jumping off point for discussions about other criteria that would go into a decision like this; you could use these conversations to emphasize that there are many factors at play in any engineering design decision, and that some are more important than others.
    • The materials presented are fictional and do not represent real substances!
  • There are two different data sets used in this simulation. The version is randomly generated, so if students leave the simulation and return to it, they might get the other version. They should not leave the simulation or refresh the page until they have finished it to avoid the possibility of having to start over with the other set of numbers. The correct answers are included in the answer key for both sets of data.
  • If students are having trouble getting the correct answer in the simulation, be sure to remind them to enter the correct number of significant figures, or the answer will not be marked as correct. All final answers should have 2 significant figures (rounded to the tenths place).
  • Another common calculation error that can occur is if students select a specific temperature measurement, rather than using the difference between the starting and ending temperatures.
  • An extension activity could be to have students conduct the experiment they design in the extension section. (You could use a hot plate in place of a stove burner if you are doing this in the lab at school, or students could try it on their stoves at home. If they do it at home you should review and approve their procedures before they try it, and make sure they know to obtain parental permission and supervision.) If they do this activity at home, be sure to advise students to exercise caution when using a heat source. Hot plates/stove burners should be turned off and unplugged as soon as they are no longer needed.
  • Related classroom resources from AACT Library that may be used to further teacher this topic:
  • Students can easily access this simulation from the following link:

    For the Student



    In this simulation, you will take on the role of an engineer building a new home. One of the decisions you have to make is what materials you will use to build the house so that it is energy efficient without being too expensive. One factor that affects energy efficiency is specific heat capacity.

    1. Imagine being barefoot outside on a hot summer’s day in a sunny place – would you rather be standing on concrete or grass? Why?
    2. You put two pots of water on the stove to boil. Both pots are the same size and are on the same size burner at the same heat setting, and one pot has twice as much water as the other. Which one will boil faster? Why do you think that is?
    3. You have the same pots from question two, but this time they have the same amount of water and one burner is set to high, the other to low. Which one will boil faster? Why do you think that is?


    Answer the following questions as you go through the simulation found at:


    1. In your own words, define specific heat capacity.
    2. In the example comparing Substance A and Substance B, which one has a higher specific heat capacity? Explain.
    3. Show your work in the space below for the specific heats you calculated for the four materials in the simulation. Be sure to include units and round your answers to the correct number of significant figures. Check your answers with the simulation.

    Material 1:__________________ Material 2: __________________

    Material 3: __________________ Material 4: __________________

    1. Which of the four materials meet the minimum specific heat capacity criteria of at least 1.8 J/g°C?
    2. Show your work in the space below for your calculations of the total cost of those two materials.
    3. What material did you choose for your building project and why?


    1. The scenarios presented in the background questions at the beginning of this activity each resulted in different temperature changes (ΔT) because of the manipulation of one of the other variables in the specific heat capacity equation (Q, m, or c). Which variable was changed in each question? Explain.

    Question 1:

    Question 2:

      Question 3:

      1. In this simulation, you solved for the specific heat capacity of several materials, but the specific heat for many materials is known. Use the specific heat equation and related variables to solve the following problems:
        1. A potted plant is placed under a grow lamp, which provides 4,200 J of energy to the plant and the soil over the course of an hour. The specific heat capacity of the soil is about 0.84 J/g°C and there are about 2,400 g of soil. How much does the temperature of the soil increase?
        2. Water has a specific heat of 4.184 J/g°C. If the temperature of 250 g of water changes from 22.9°C to 14.7°C, how much heat energy was removed from the water?
        3. A sample of aluminum (c = 0.900 J/g°C) is heated from 20.8°C to 38.7 °C using 3,750 J of energy. What is the mass of the aluminum sample?
        4. Determine the final temperature of sample with a specific heat of 1.1 J/g°C and a mass of 385 g if it starts out at a temperature of 19.5°C and 885 J of energy are added to it.
      2. In this simulation, we only addressed two factors – energy efficiency (as measured by specific heat capacity) and cost – when determining what building materials to use. In real life, you would have to consider other factors as well. List at least 2 additional factors that might impact material choice for a home building project.
      3. Substance X has a specific heat capacity that is twice as large as Substance Y. If both samples ended up at the same change in temperature from the same amount of energy added, what is the relationship between the masses of the two samples? Explain.
      4. Using what you’ve learned about specific heat capacity, propose an explanation for why the sand at the beach can feel so hot when the water feels much cooler even though they both receive the same amount of energy from the sun.


      Using your knowledge of specific heat capacity, temperature, mass, and energy, design an experiment to determine the average energy output per minute of a stove burner at its highest setting. (Note: the specific heat capacity of many common materials are well established and can be found in chemistry textbooks and other reputable sources!) Be sure to include a list of materials and procedures that could be followed by another scientist.