Hands-on Activity: Break the Tension
Educational Standards :
Learning Objectives (Return to Contents)
After this activity, students should be able to:
Materials List (Return to Contents)
Each group needs:
For the entire class to share:
Introduction/Motivation (Return to Contents)
What do you think: Can you get a paper clip to float on water? (Take a class vote: Tally the yes, no and maybe votes, and write them on the board.) How do you think you would do it? Exactly how would you place the paper clip on the water surface? (List all the different suggestions on the board. Possible examples: slowly placing it on top of the water, throwing it in, putting in on a piece of paper, etc.)
(Pass out a blank note card to each student.) If you answered yes, that you think you could float a paper clip, write down your prediction and why you chose it. If you answered no, that you could not float a paper clip, write down your prediction and why you chose it. If you answered maybe, write down your prediction and why you chose it. (After everyone has finished, have a few students share with the class what they wrote.)
Well, an engineer might ask the same types of questions when trying to solve a problem. Asking questions and making predictions is not only part of the scientific process, but also part of the engineering design process as well. Why do you think engineers need to learn about water and what can float on water? There are many reasons! Engineers design technologies to conserve water, to remove contaminants from water (to clean it), to explore under water, and to protect creatures and insects that live in the water.
Today we are going to investigate a specific property of water called surface tension, what can change it, and how that property can be useful to engineers. Before I tell you more about surface tension, you are going to do a few experiments to figure it out on your own.
Vocabulary/Definitions (Return to Contents)
Procedure (Return to Contents)
Before the Activity
With the Students
Part 1: Surface Tension
With the Students
Part 2: Breaking Surface Tension
With the Students
Part 3: Surface Tension/Surfactant-Powered Boats
With the Students
Part 4: Post-Activity Discussion and Closure
Why were we able to get a paper clip to float on water? Well, water and other liquids have a property called surface tension. What do the words "surface" and "tension" make you think of? Surface may make you think of the top of the water, where the water meets the air. Tension might remind you of something tight, pulled or strained. Put those together and you have it; water on the surface has a tendency to be tight with the water around it, resulting in a property that pulls it together. This is called surface tension.
So, what happened to the surface tension when we added soap? Well, soap is what we call a surfactant. This word comes from two words: surface and active. (Write these on the board.) Surface, because soap acts on the surface, and active because it acts on the surface. Surfactants act on the surfaces of liquids, in this case water, to reduce surface tension.
What property kept the drops of water together on the wax paper and pennies in the first demo? (Answer: Surface tension. See the pre-activity demo in the Assessment section.) In what situations might a surfactant be useful? (Answer: When trying to remove something floating on the surface of water, like an oil spill.) In what sort of situations might a surfactant not be useful? (Answer: When you are trying to float something on water, like a paper clip.)
In what ways have engineers used the property of surface tension to design things to help people? Engineers understand how surface tension works and use it in many ways. They design printers and printing presses in which surface tension is used in the ink application process. Environmental engineers who clean water and air pollution take advantage of surface tension. They design systems that use the condensation of water, for example, to make drinking water from salty ocean water, or use water vapor to remove pollutants from dirty air. Surface tension determines whether things can float or not, which applies to many everyday situations. Surface tension is a consideration in space flight (zero gravity) — liquids cannot be stored in open containers because they will run up the vessel walls.
In what ways have engineers used surfactants to design things to help us? Engineers figure out ways to use surfactants to break up surface tension. For example, surfactants, like soaps and detergents, break up all kinds of oil, which helps in cleaning up messes. Environmental engineers use surfactants to clean hazardous waste areas or spilled airplane fuel on runways or spilled oil on the surface of the ocean. Chemical engineers design cleaning products using surfactants — everything from laundry soap to shampoo.
How did the surfactant help the little boats move? What happened? (Answer: The surfactant acted to break the surface tension.) Why does it only work once or twice? (Answer: You can only break the surface tension a few of times, and then it stays broken.)
Who knows what a water strider is? (At least one student might know that water striders are insects that "walk" on water using surface tension; see Figure 3.) Do you know what property water striders use to "walk" on water? (Answer: Surface tension.) Engineers at MIT and Carnegie Mellon have recently developed a mechanical robot water strider that can also "walk" on water (see photo at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/3126299.stm). How might something like this be useful? (Encourage creative ideas.)
Attachments (Return to Contents)
Assessment (Return to Contents)
Think About It Demo: Drop a few drops of water on a sheet of wax paper placed on a tabletop. Drop a drop of water on the face of pennies scattered on students' desktops. Ask students to brainstorm with their teammates to come up with ideas about why the drops of water stay together. Why don't they go all over the place? Why do they seem to form spheres? Have students keep these ideas in mind throughout the activity.
Activity Embedded Assessment
Class Questions: Throughout the activity, ask students the questions embedded at each stage of the Procedure section.
Drawing: Have students draw or explain in their own words their answers to these questions: What is surface tension? What does a surfactant do?
Story time!: Have students write a story about a water strider that lives happily in a very clean pond, until — somehow — a surfactant is added to the pond water. Have them include in the story how the water strider lived before, what happened because of the surfactant, from where the surfactant may have come, and what an engineer might do to help the poor water strider. Learn more about water striders at MIT's Water-Walking website: http://www-math.mit.edu/%7Edhu/Striderweb/striderweb.html.
Re-Engineering: Have students redesign their paper boats from Part 3 (of the Procedure section) to travel even further. Test the new designs and keep making improvements.
Penny Challenge: Challenge students to see and record how many drops of water they can put on the face of a penny before the water spills off. As a class, create one bar graph depicting the number of drops each student recorded. This can be done using graph paper where each square can represent 1 or 2 drops of water. What property holds the drops of water together on the penny? (Answer: Surface tension.) What happens if you add a drop of diluted liquid soap? (Answer: The water spills off the penny.)
References (Return to Contents)
Castles in the Sand, Water. Out-of-the-Blue Lesson Plans, Curriculum and Activities (grade 3+), Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, National Park Service. Accessed March 22, 2006. http://www.nps.gov/grsa/resources/curriculum/elem/lesson35.htm
Dictionary.com. Lexico Publishing Group, LLC. Accessed March 22, 2006. (Source of some vocabulary definitions, with some adaptation) http://www.dictionary.com
Hu, David L. Water-Walking. Updated August 16, 2003. Water Striders, Fluid Dynamics Laboratory and Department of Mathematics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA. Accessed March 22, 2006. (Amazing and beautiful photographs) http://www-math.mit.edu/%7Edhu/Striderweb/striderweb.html
Noble, Ivan. Robot Insect Walks on Water. Updated August 6, 2003. BBC News Online Science. Accessed March 22, 2006. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/3126299.stm
ContributorsJay Shah, Malinda Schaefer Zarske, Denise Carlson, Janet Yowell
Copyright© 2006 by Regents of the University of Colorado.
Supporting Program (Return to Contents)Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder
Acknowledgements (Return to Contents)
The contents of these digital library curricula were developed by the Integrated Teaching and Learning Program under National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. 0338326. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.