poppy and unpopped kernels of popping corn spilled on a table

Heat Transfer through Popping Popcorn

In this tasty activity, students learn about about heat transfer by conduction, convection, and radiation as they pop popcorn in three different ways.

Students will observe heat transfer by conduction, convection, and radiation as they pop popcorn.  This activity can be used as an intro to these concepts or after initial instruction on the concepts. The lesson ends with a tasty treat!

Related vocabulary:




Part I  Conduction 

Assist students to carefully pop popcorn on a hot plate or stove using canola oil.

  1. Students should use gloves and goggles.  They should be warned of the danger of a hot plate or stove and supervised carefully.
  2. Add 3 Tbsp canola oil to the 3-Qt Saucepan
  3. Add 1/3 cup popcorn
  4. Turn on the hot plate to medium high, cover the saucepan, and place it on the stove.  
  5. Wait for the saucepan to heat up 
  6. Hold the saucepan carefully by the handle and shake it as the kernels pop.
  7. Remove from the heat and allow to cool when popcorn is popping only every second or two.
Discussion of Conduction 
  1. While waiting for the pan to warm up, discuss heat transfer by conduction – through a solid material.
  2. Ask:  “What is conducting the heat in this case?”  the pan
  3. Ask:  “Why is the popcorn heating up?”  It is in contact with the oil, which is in contact with the pan, which is in contact with the stove (or hot plate).
  4. Discuss and allow questions. 

Part II  Convection 

Students will pop popcorn in an a popcorn popper.   These were less difficult to find than we thought they would be.

  1. According to the directions with the popper, place the popcorn kernels in the popper.
  2. Turn on the popper.
  3. Hot air will transfer heat to the kernels, making them expand and pop.
Discussion of Convection 
  1. Ask:  “What is heating the popcorn?”  the hot air in the popcorn popper
  2. Describe to students why this models convection:  The hot air transfers the heat to the cooler kernels, and when enough hot air heats the kernels, they pop.
  3. Discuss and allow questions. 

Part III  Radiation 

  1. Students will pop popcorn in a microwave.  
  2. Ask:  “How was the popcorn heated in the microwave? What is heating it?”  Radiation- energy transfer through empty space
Discuss of Radiation:  
  1. The kernels are heated by the radiation in the microwave, and the kernels heat up, giving off more heat to the kernels surrounding them.
  2. Tell students that radiation is the main manner in which air is heated by the Sun.

Part IV Closure

  1. Enjoy popcorn in three groups – the conduction, convection, and radiation groups.
  2. Students review using vocabulary cards if so desired. (See variations.)


Many thanks to Jim Clark for this idea.


NGSS Standards

4th Grade – Energy

PS3.A: Definitions of Energy

PS3.B: Conservation of Energy and Energy Transfer

PS3.A: Definitions of Energy

Middle School – Energy

PS3.B: Conservation of Energy and Energy Transfer

PS3.C: Relationship Between Energy and Forces

By Laura Hospitál

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