Materials that Absorb Solar Energy

This lesson developed by Reach Out!

Recommended Age Groups: Early Elementary, Later Elementary

Guiding Question:

What kinds of materials store solar energy?







Each experiment requires:

  1. Shoebox deep enough to hold cans
  2. Four (4) soup or other cans
  3. Four (4) thermometers
  4. Water
  5. Salt
  6. Sand or soil
  7. Shredded paper
  8. Masking tape, marker
  9. Black paint
  10. Paint brushes
  11. Handout

Room Preparation

Elbow room and a place near a window to place black boxes.

Safety Precautions

Handle thermometers with care.

Procedures and Activity


  1. What is solar energy? Why should we try to tap and use solar energy?
    Discuss and find that energy from the sun is great because it does not pollute. Share the fact that most energy we use is fossil-related and costs a lot to harvest, can destroy the earth during harvesting, and is limited or exhaustible. Solar energy is limited only by cloud cover and the earth's rotation.

  2. Today, we will begin an experiment to see what materials store and absorb sunlight. Why is this information useful? Share ideas on solar applications in our lives—cooking, heating, power for cars, etc.


  1. Have students get in pairs or small groups.

  2. Students paint their shoebox black—inside and out.

  3. Students put a strip of masking tape on each can. Label with a marker the contents to be put in each: sand, salt, water, paper.

  4. Fill up each can with its own material. Place cans inside the box. Put a thermometer in each can.

  5. Put the top on the box. Place box on a windowsill or table in full sunlight for one (1) hour.

  6. After one (1) hour, remove box top, take out cans, remove and read thermometer. Document temperature of each material on Handout

  7. Put cans back in box, cover, and leave in sunlight.

  8. Retake temperatures of each material every ten (10) minutes for one (1) hour. Document temperatures on handout. Review the importance of observing, recording, and documenting findings for scientists.

Closing - Original Question

Ask again, "What kinds of materials store solar energy?"


  1. Students may orally share or write a simple research report about their experiment, observations and findings.

  2. Students may demonstrate their knowledge about solar energy and materials by helping others conduct this experiment and learn about applications.

Extension Ideas

  1. Students may repeat experiment using different materials.

  2. Students may research an application of solar energy such as solar heating panels, solar cars, or solar ovens. Check out information about the University of Michigan's Solar Car Team. Or, try making solar ovens out of pizza boxes! You can actually cook things in them, such as like English muffin pizzas, grilled sandwiches, baked apples, and even graham cracker-chocolate-and-marshmallow "S'Mores"! Have students share their findings and projects with each other.

  3. Solar Cooking Archive has great information on many solar cooker models, recipes, and fun facts.

  4. Explore people in the commmunity who use solar energy or are developing and selling products that use solar energy. Invite them to come and share their interests, studies, and knowledge.

  5. Plan an environmental field trip:

Careers Related to Lesson Topic

Prerequisite Vocabulary

To suck up or take in. In this case, it means light energy being taken in by an object or material

The ability to do work. In this case, a source of usable power

Light bouncing off an object or material

Having to do with the sun

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