Hot Science – Ice and Friction STEM Activity for Kids

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Friction can be a difficult concept for young students to understand, but this ice and friction experiment is not only easy but very effective at demonstrating how friction works and the heat it generates.

In this post we are looking at friction and glaciers. Glaciers do lose mass through several means, and the pressure from friction is just one way.

You will need to prep a day ahead of time by freezing water in paper cups (see the instructions below.) Have your kids look for a heavy rock too. You can use another heavy object, but it will need to be able to balance on the frozen “glacier” (the frozen water cube created in the paper cups.)

Ice and Friction Experiment – How Pressure Heats Things Up on Glaciers

Ice and Friction Experiment - blue ice in antarctica

We all know that ice is frozen water.  However, did you know there are many different different types of ice?  These include bullet ice, pancake ice, grease ice, pack ice, green ice, and many more!

IMPORTANT NOTE: We have a TOTALLY FREE 40+ page lesson with worksheets that covers glaciers/ice, Antarctica, and penguins.   In the free lesson you’ll find worksheets to go with this activity.

An ice sheet covers Antarctica.  The only other area covered by an ice sheet is Greenland.  There are two types of ice sheets—marine-based and land-based. Antarctica has both.

Antarctica has two ice sheets:  the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, which is a land-based ice sheet, and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which is a marine-based ice sheet.  Marine-based ice sheets are more unstable than land-based ice sheets.  This is because the bottom of a marine-based ice sheet is below sea level. So, this ice sheet can change as the water change.  A land-based ice sheet is more stable because it is above sea level.

Do you know why some ice in Antarctica appears blue? Download our FREE 37-page activity e-book (see bottom of this post) to find out why!

Ice and Friction Experiment - floating ice berg

In addition to the ice sheets that make up Antarctica, there are glaciers in the waters of Antarctica.

Glaciers are a buildup of water, ice, air, and small pieces of rock.  They form over many years and move very slowly.  As glaciers move, they pick up and drop off sediment along the way, causing erosion to the landscape.

When we think of glaciers, we often think of the coldest places on Earth, such as Antarctica.  While glaciers exist in Antarctica, glaciers are also found in the northwestern United States, New Zealand, and Chile. These areas have high elevations, and even though it may warm up during part of the year in these areas, the glaciers can accumulate enough ice during the cold months to last during a meltdown period in warmer months.  When ice and snow add to the glacier’s mass (or ice sheet), this is called accumulation.

Ablation is when the glacier or ice sheet loses mass.  How can a glacier lose mass? (Our ice and friction experiment is going to demonstrate this!)

Ice and Friction Experiment - calving glacial ice

Glaciers can lose mass through a process called calving. Calving is when a piece of the glacier breaks away and forms an iceberg is a large block of ice that has broken away from a glacier.  Evaporation and melting are two other ways ablation can occur. In the picture to the right, the ice formation to the left has broken away from the main glacier. This is calving.

How can such a large piece of ice melt?  Higher temperatures is one way.  However, pressure is a force at work in glaciers.  The pressure on the ice causes higher temperatures, and the ice melts faster.  The following ice and friction experiment will demonstrate this process.


Ice and Friction Science Activity – How Pressure Affects Glaciers


  • 2 Paper cups that hold at least 1 1/2 cups of water
  • 2 Flat pans or cookie sheets
  • 2 1/2 cups Water
  • 1 Heavy object or rock
  • 2 measuring cups or lab beakers to measure water


  • Fill each paper cup with 1 1/4 cup of water

  • Place on an even surface in the freezer overnight.

  • Gather the two frozen “glaciers” in the paper cups, a heavy object, and 2 pans.

  • Place each “glacier” in a pan Then, place the havy object on top of one glacier.

  • Watch the puddling of water at the base of each “glacier” after 1 minute, after 2 minutes. What do you see?

  • Wait about another 10 minutes. What happened?

  • Keep watching. If you are able, video the activity. Does the object eventually fall? Why do you think it did?

  • Look at the top of the two “glaciers” once the object falls. What do you notice?

  • Once the heavy object falls, place it flat in the pan up against the “glacier”, let sit.

  • After another 60 minutes, look at the “glaciers.” What do you notice about the glacier with the heavy object up against it?

  • When the “glaciers” have been melting for 90 minutes, carefully remove them from the pan and measure the water in each pan, individually. Which pan had more water?

What Happened In The Ice and Friction Experiment

The heavy object pressing down on the “glacier” ice cube creates friction.  Friction creates heat.  It is this heat that caused the ice under pressure to melt faster.

When you looked at the top of the two glaciers, the one that did not have the heavy object on it was smooth, and the glacier with the heavy object had a rough-surfaced top. This is because of the friction between the ice and the object. The rock we used had a rough surface. Rougher surfaces have more friction between them than smoother surfaces. The rougher surface causes more friction and generates more heat because of the increased friction. This is why we put salt on sidewalks, roads, and driveways when there is a threat of snow and or ice. The rough surface of the salt causes friction against our shoes and boots, so we are less likely to slip on the ice.

Remove the heavy object from the ice cube and pick up the ice cube.  Did you notice that the cube tends to glide across the counter/tabletop on a layer of water formed during the melting process?

What you observed with the ice cube occurs with glaciers!  As glaciers accumulate ice and mass, the pressure of the ice on the top portion of the glacier creates friction (thus, heat), causing the ice on the bottom of the glacier to melt. As this ice on the bottom melts, a slippery layer of melting water accumulates, and the glacier can slide downhill under the force of gravity.

Download the FREE Lesson by clicking here or the graphic below. You can read more and then request your freebie!

Other Resources to Go Along with the Ice and Friction Experiment

How to Make “Frosted” Glass with Crystals

Snowflake Science Activities – with printable lesson

National Snow and Ice Data Center


Ice and Friction Experiment

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