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Snow Blanket

  • Key Stage 3
  • Topical

Type: Activity
Learning Strategy: Problem solving
Topic: Heat

Alarmed by the retreat of its Alpine glacier, a Swiss ski resort wrapped part of the shrinking ice-cap in a giant blanket in a bid to reduce the summer melt. Snow blanket is a puzzle-solving activity where students design and test an insulating reflective cover to apply ideas about heat transfer and practise drawing conclusions from data.

This activity was produced in partnership with the Institute of Physics.

Published: 6th July 2005
Reviews & Comments: 5

Learning objectives

REVISED version: Latest version with bugs corrected. For PC users, this is the easiest file to download.
The other file is a version that works for Macs as well as PC.

1) download one of the zip files to your machine (see versions below)
2) Open the zip file using 'winzip' (you can get a free trial copy from This will put the files in a new folder on your computer
3) With REVISED version: double click to run.
If you're using the other zip file, double click on 'snowblanket.htm' and it will open with your web browser (you will need the 'Flash' plug-in to play - which most computer have already)

Students will learn how to identify the best materials for insulation and reflection as the ones that reduce heat flow the most

Try the activity

You will need Acrobat Reader installed to open the activity sheets.

8i Heating and cooling
• to recognise heat as energy
• to use a model which associates energy flow with temperature change
• that heat energy will flow more easily through good thermal conductors and less well through poor conductors
• that insulation can reduce unwanted energy transfer

Running the activity

The activity is designed to be set as a whole class puzzle, and run from a projector or interactive whiteboard. The 'Flash' simulation is embedded in a PowerPoint presentation to make it easy to use. How to play:

1 Set the context and task
Show the 'news story' about the melting glacier, and then the 'problem' screen which illustrates how the glacier is melting under the sun's heat energy. Set students the task of figuring out the best materials for the snow blanket

2 investigate materials in the lab
Click the 'design' screen. Students now carry out virtual experiments to test different combinations of insulating and reflecting material. When you press 'start', the lamp switches on and the 3 sensors show the energy passing through the system.

Students can be encouraged to write down the values in order to draw conclusions. The challenge is to figure out the combination that will stop the snow melting – in the minimum number of lab experiments

3 Test the snow blanket
When students are confident they know, click on 'test', and you can see how the blanket performs during a day under the real sun. If the answer is correct a congratulations message appears. If not, the snow will melt and students will have to go back to the lab, or check their interpretations.

4 experiments is enough to test the properties of each material, if students choose to vary the material each time.
The best material for insulation or reflection is the one that reduces the heat flow most ie where the sensor value drops most.

News links

Reuters news story
The original news story about the snow blanket
Guardian news article
A discussion about whether wrapping a glacier in PVC will work.
Glacial blanket may could help preserve Alpine skiing
New of the latest experiments with protecting the snow in Austria

Reviews & Comments

Write your online review to share your feedback and classroom tips with other teachers. How well does it work, how engaging is it, how did you use it, and how could it be improved?

Snow Blanket review

May 8th, 2009

5 Star

My class of reluctant science pupils loved this activity. They sat engaged. Thank you

Reviewer: Janet Eadon

Snow Blanket

Jul 5th, 2008

4 Star

An intersting andnovel activity used with Year 9

Reviewer: Bernard Liversidge

Snow Blanket review

Jun 27th, 2008

3 Star

Reviewer: Amanda Jones

Snow Blanket

Aug 1st, 2006

4 Star

I found it a "fantasticly" useful simulation. Used it with Year 8 girls.
I took a similar approach to Ruth Whitehouse (see other review) and built a task around it by getting the students to write down the results (constructed a grid), propose what sorts of materials the reflectors and insulators may be and evaluate the validity of the laboratory model (is using a 100J lamp as the sun OK? etc).
Asking the students to fill out a data grid forced them to slow down and think a little more about what they were doing. Most wanted to rush through and "fix it" quickly rather than gather evidence.
One "glitch(?)" to be aware of is if students repeat the investigation the result will be different. To repeat it is best to close the browser or Flash window and restart from scratch (resets the random generator) otherwise you can get inconsistent results i.e. the best combination doesn't save the glacier.

Reviewer: Simon Robinson

Snow Blanket

Jul 4th, 2006

5 Star

I ran this with a mixed ability Y8 class. They were immediately very engaged by the problem and the initial discussions brought out several misconceptions, such as insulators do not always keep things warm. They enjoyed the challenge to save the glacier.
The actual activity takes no more than 20 minutes. I added a research task to explain how the blanket works and find out details of the real blanket. You could also get pupils to write down the results to each of their tests and go on to discuss how they approached the problem.

Reviewer: Ruth Whitehouse