Teacher background information


Year 9 Science Content Description

Science Understanding

Physical sciences

Energy transfer through different mediums can be explained using wave and particle models (ACSSU182 - Scootle )

  • investigating aspects of heat transfer and conservation in the design of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ bedding and clothing in the various climatic regions of Australia (OI.5, OI.7)

This elaboration provides a context for students to consolidate their understanding of thermal energy transfer mechanisms. It provides opportunities for students to investigate particle and wave models of heat transfer in the context of the effective clothing technologies developed by Aboriginal peoples living in cool and temperate climatic regions of Australia. It also provides opportunities to investigate and compare the thermal conductivity of various materials, as well as factors that affect the rate at which energy is transferred as heat between bodies.

Australia is often characterised as a hot and dry continent and the stereotypical image of Aboriginal peoples is often that of desert people with minimal clothing. Similarly, it is easy to think that Torres Strait Islander peoples, living so close to the equator, perhaps may not have had the need to develop effective bedding and clothing. Australia has a large variety of climatic regions and First Nations’ peoples have thrived successfully in all its climates, including the cool temperate and oceanic climates of southern Australia, Tasmania and the Alpine regions.

In order to control heat loss, Aboriginal peoples developed technologies that enabled them to live and thrive in these cooler south-eastern parts of Australia. The most lauded of these technologies are cloaks made from the hides of animals such possums, kangaroos and wallabies.

For warmth, the traditional skin cloaks were typically worn with the fur lining next to the body, trapping a layer of air. During rainy weather, the cloaks could be worn with the fur on the outside. The oily, water-repellent hairs provided a waterproof protection for the wearer. The cloaks were also rubbed with fat to further improve their insulating properties. The cloaks were large and could also be used to sleep on at night, acting as both mattress and blanket.

Possum skin cloaks are of great cultural significance to some Aboriginal peoples. Often, the inner surface of each cloak was incised and painted with ochre to depict themes from nature or stories of identity, kinship, family group and Country. Prior to 1830 almost every person had his or her own possum skin cloak. They were worn from a young age, with additional skins added to the cloak as the individual grew. Possum fur cloaks were also greatly admired and sought after by European colonists for their functionality as well as for their aesthetic value. However, in the mid-1800s, due to the loss of access to their traditional lands and its resources, many Aboriginal people began using government-issued wool blankets that were less effective in keeping the wearer warm and dry and offered little protection in winter. During this time, many Aboriginal people became ill and died from common European colds and influenza viruses.

The heat-conserving properties of cloaks made from animal furs involve three principal modes of heat transfer: thermal conduction, convection and radiation. 

An object contains thermal (heat) energy because of the movement of the particles in the object. The faster the particles move, the greater the amount of thermal energy the object possesses.

Temperature is a measure, on a defined scale, of the average kinetic energy of molecular motion in an object. It is a measure of an object’s ability to transfer thermal energy to another object.

Temperature and heat are closely related concepts, but they are not the same. Heat is a form of energy; temperature is a measure of it. For example, 200 mL of water at 30 °C contains more thermal energy than 100 mL of water at the same temperature.

Thermal energy will flow from a high temperature substance to a lower temperature substance until they reach thermal equilibrium. This transfer can occur by particles transferring their kinetic energy to nearby particles (conduction) or by the bulk movement of particles in fluids (convection). Transfer of heat energy can also occur as electromagnetic radiation.

The primary purpose of clothing is to regulate these processes. Traditional possum fur cloaks not only act as an insulator by providing a barrier of trapped air that slows thermal conduction, it has also been shown that fur hairs play an important role in reflecting infrared radiation, thus leading to a significant enhancement of a hide’s insulating power.

Students could choose to investigate the situations for which the equation for the rate of heat transfer, in watts, through flat surfaces is applicable:


Where  k = thermal conductivity in W m-1 °C-1

A = surface area in m2

T1 = the temperature on one side of the wall in °C

T2 = the temperature on the other side of the wall in °C

d = the thickness of the wall in m.

By studying energy transfer through different mediums in the context of traditional clothing, students can gain an appreciation of the technologies and culturally important methods used by Aboriginal peoples to survive in cold wet climates. There are also opportunities for students to consolidate their understanding about heat and temperature, to become more familiar with the models we use to explain thermal energy transfer, and to deepen their understanding of the differences between thermal conductors and thermal insulators.

In the construction of this teacher background information, a list of consulted works has been generated. The consulted works are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. To access this information, please read and acknowledge the following important information:

Please note that some of the sources listed in the consulted works may contain material that is considered culturally offensive or inappropriate. The consulted works are not provided or recommended as classroom resources.

I have read and confirm my awareness that the consulted works may contain offensive material and are not provided or recommended by ACARA as classroom resources.

The following sources were consulted in the construction of this teacher background information. They are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. It is important that educators recognise that despite written records being incredibly useful, they can also be problematic as they are often based on non-Indigenous interpretations of observations and records of First Nations Peoples’ behaviours, actions, comments and traditions. Such interpretations privilege western paradigms of non-First Nations authors and include, at times, attitudes and language of the past. These sources often lack the viewpoints of the people they discuss and can contain ideas based on outdated scientific theories. Furthermore, although the sources are in the public domain, they may contain cultural breaches and cause offence to the Peoples concerned. With careful selection, evaluation and community consultation, the consulted works may provide teachers with further support and reference materials that could be culturally audited, refined and adapted to construct culturally appropriate teaching and learning materials. The ability to select and evaluate appropriate resources is an essential cultural capability skill for educators.

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. (1980). Snug as a bug: Cloaks and rugs. Fortitude Valley, Qld: Queensland Department of Aboriginal and Islanders Advancement, Archaeology Branch.

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. (2017). Possum skin cloak. Retrieved from https://aiatsis.gov.au/exhibitions/possum-skin-cloak

Blacklock, F. (2014). Aboriginal skin cloaks. National Quilt Register. Retrieved from http://www.collectionsaustralia.net/nqr/fabri.php

Cahir, F., Clark, I., & Clarke, P. (2018). Aboriginal biocultural knowledge in south-eastern Australia. Clayton, Victoria: Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation Publishing.

Cook, M. R. (2015). What designers can learn from Aboriginal possum skin cloaks. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/what-designers-can-learn-from-aboriginal-possum-skin-cloaks-38655

Cooper, C. (1989). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collections in overseas museums. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.

Elder, B. (1988). Blood on the wattle: Massacres and maltreatment of Australian Aborigines since 1788. Frenchs Forest, NSW: Child & Associates.

Fraser, J. (1892). The Aborigines of New South Wales. Sydney: Charles Potter, Government Printer.

Goolmer, T., & Johnson, C. (2011). Aboriginal cultural revival project:  Possum skin cloak by the lake [Traditional clothing].  Lake Macquarie, NSW: Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery.

Harris, A. (1961). The secrets of Alexander Harris: A frank autobiography. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.

Howitt, A. W. (1904). The native tribes of south-east Australia. London: Macmillan.

Lakic, M. (1992). Dress and ornamentation. In Museum of Victoria (Ed.), Women's work: Aboriginal women's artefacts in the Museum of Victoria. Melbourne: Museum of Victoria.

Lotens, W. A. (2011). Heat exchange through clothing. Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety. Retrieved from http://www.iloencyclopaedia.org/part-vi-16255/heat-and-cold/76-42-heat-and-cold/heat-exchange-through-clothing

McCann, M. (2012, June 5). Cloaking the Aboriginal Past. Lens. Retrieved from https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/05/cloaking-the-aboriginal-past/

Meyer, L. (2014, January 23). Fur and feathers keep animals warm by scattering light. The Optical Society News. Retrieved from https://www.osa.org/en-us/about_osa/newsroom/news_releases/2014/fur_and_feathers_keep_animals_warm_by_scattering_l/

Mountford, C. P. (1960). Decorated Aboriginal skin rugs. Records of the South Australian Museum, 13(4), 505-508.

Murphy-Wandin, J. (2003). Remembering Barak.  Retrieved from http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/barak/

National Museum of Australia. (2003). Reproduction of a possum skin cloak collected in 1872 from Lake Condah, from the Tooloyn Koortsksy collection. Retrieved from http://collectionsearch.nma.gov.au/?object=70470

Reynolds, A. J. (2005). Wrapped in a possum skin cloak: The Tooloyn Koortakay collection in the National Museum of Australia. Canberra: National Museum of Australia.

Rhodes, S. (2012, April 26). The Aboriginal art of making possum-skin cloaks. Australian Geographic. Retrieved from http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/topics/history-culture/2012/04/the-aboriginal-art-of-making-possum-skin-cloaks/

Rhodes, S., Couzens, V., & Koorie Heritage Trust. (2016). Possum skin cloaks. Culture Victoria. Retrieved from https://cv.vic.gov.au/stories/aboriginal-culture/possum-skin-cloaks/

Roth, H. L., & Butler, M. E. (1890). The Aborigines of Tasmania. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.

Sayers, A., Cooper, C., & National Gallery of Australia. (1994). Aboriginal artists of the nineteenth century. Melbourne: Oxford University Press in association with the National Gallery of Australia.

Scully, A. (2011, February 7). Making an Aboriginal possum skin cloak.  Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/local/videos/2011/01/24/3120678.htm

Shen, A. (2012, June 27). Ancient traditions, new stories: Reviving the Aboriginal possum skin cloak. Smithsonian. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/ancient-traditions-new-stories-reviving-the-aboriginal-possum-skin-cloak-7192/

Simonis, P., Rattal, M., Oualim, E. M., Mouhse, A., & Vigneron, J. P. (2014). Radiative contribution to thermal conductance in animal furs and other woolly insulators. Optics Express, 22(2), 1940-1951.

Smithson, M. A. (1990). A misunderstood gift: The annual issue of blankets to Aborigines in New South Wales, 1826-1962 (Master’s thesis). Armidale, NSW: University of New England.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. (2018). Ethnology: Possum skin cloak. Retrieved from https://collections.nmnh.si.edu/search/anth/?ark=ark:/65665/3f7828791fd524ef397fde6e2be650d74

Smyth, R. B. (1878). The Aborigines of Victoria: With notes relating to the habits of the natives of other parts of Australia and Tasmania. Melbourne: J. Ferres, Government Printer.

Wright, R. V. S. (1979). A modicum of taste: Aboriginal cloaks and rugs. Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies Newsletter, 11, 51-68.

Young, M., Mundy, E., & Mundy, D. (2000). The Aboriginal people of the Monaro. Sydney: NSW: National Parks and Wildlife Service.