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Convection Currents

Name of Corresponding Unit Plan: Aquatic Environments

Grade Level: 5-12

Common Core Standards:
RS. 3. Follow precisely a complex multistep procedure when carrying out experiments, taking measurements, or performing technical tasks, attending to special cases or exceptions defined in the text.

Content Areas: Science

Recommended Length/Duration: 45-60 minutes

Learning Goals: In this activity students will observe how convection currents are produced and behave in a closed system.


  1. Have students read in advance the article about Moving Water or another text describing convection currents.  Discuss with the class how convection currents are created when warmer water rises to the surface and cooler water sinks to the bottom.
  2. The observations can be made in small lab groups or as a whole class demonstration.
  3. Fill a large glass beaker with water.  Sprinkle an insoluable, neutrally buoyant material into the water (try black pepper!)
  4. Place a burner under the center of the beaker so that it will heat the water at that point only.  Have students draw the motion of the suspended particles as the water forms convection currents.
  5. Move the burner to one side of the beaker.  Have students draw the motion of this configuration.
  6. Have students suggest other current patterns they might create by placing the burner in different locations.  Have them predict what they think will happen and diagram the results of each experiment.
  7. Have student summarize their findings by stating a rule about the behavior of convection currents.  Clarify any disagreements or questions.

Assessments: Informal assessment of participation, effort, and accuracy of lab sheets.

Materials/Resources: Lab Sheets (pdf), Glass Beakers, Burners, Water

Special Considerations: Students should wear lab glasses and safety precautions should be taken for using burners and handling hot water.

Extensions: Students may want to learn more about the convection currents in the oceans, atmosphere, and Earth’s crust.

Students may want to learn more about how the principles of convection are applied in industrial applications.