MnSCU Partnership > Teaching Activities > The Candle Icebreaker

The Candle Icebreaker

Dave Blackburn, Century College
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This activity has been peer-reviewed as a part of the Sharing Our Work Virtual Learning Community.

This activity was submitted by an educator in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) System to the Sharing Our Work Virtual Learning Community. Sharing Our Work was the culminating piece of a collaboration between MnSCU and Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL). Information on the the criteria and process of the peer review can be found at

This page first made public: Feb 24, 2010


Students examine a candle (un-lit and then lit) to list chemical & physical properties, and think about how those properties relate to molecular level events & properties. Optionally, students may be asked to explore how the candle can relate to upcoming topics in the course. They then share in small groups and then in class.

Learning Goals

  • Peer work introduced
  • Macro/micro/symbolic thinking
  • Observation skills
  • Recording observations & ideas
  • Affective improvement as students realize how chemistry can inform our everyday experiences

Context for Use

This is a 15 to 30 minute first-week, in-class exercise for non-majors, introductory, or general chemistry in which students examine chemical and physical concepts relevant to a candle, then combine their observations in groups.Introduces group work and helps students interact with peers.
This activity is an example of Cooperative Learning.

Description and Teaching Materials

Time: 15 to 20 minutes
Large candles (not birthday candles), about 1 per 4 students
Several books of matches
Instructor distributes candles, asks students to form groups, and asks class to take a minute to write down observations about the candle.
Instructor then asks them to pool their own observations within their groups and think about whether their observations are micro, macro, or symbolic level.
Instructor interacts with individual groups to guide their explorations.
May ask groups to look at syllabus or textbook's table of contents to try to ink various class topics to this familiar thing, a candle.
Finally a class discussion elicits observations from the different groups. Teacher may explain/explore observations as appropriate.
Description of Candle Exercise (Microsoft Word 17kB Feb24 10)
Powerpoint slides relevant to candle exercise (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 60kB Jan25 10)

Teaching Notes and Tips

The Faraday lectures about candles (referenced below) are fascinating reading.
Depending on class interest & progress teacher will want to concentrate on specific aspects related to intro chapter; or may allow free-ranging discussion.
Try to emphasize to students that chemistry helps us see more than is visible to the eye.


Watch individual groups to make sure all are participating.

Elicit comments from groups that are not volunteering them.

May wish to assign a "two-minute paper" on a topic such as one of these:

  • What was something you learned today about candles? Or, what was something you helped someone else learn?
  • List three or more topics in the upcoming course material that could relate to candles, and why the candle might be a good example for each.
  • Explain what happens as a candle burns from the perspective of an oxygen atom in the air (or a carbon atom in the candle wax, etc.)
  • Early scientists worked with candles to explore the idea of whether fire was a substance or not. In a few sentences, how would you answer their question?
  • How did your group decide what observations to report?

References and Resources