Hands-on Activity Solid, Liquid or Gas? Material Identification Using Five Senses

Quick Look

Grade Level: 3 (3-5)

Time Required: 45 minutes

Expendable Cost/Group: US $3.00

$0 - $3 depending on materials chosen

Group Size: 2

Activity Dependency: None

Subject Areas: Chemistry, Physical Science, Science and Technology

NGSS Performance Expectations:

NGSS Three Dimensional Triangle

A girl showing her hand, nose, tongue, ear and eye to illustrate the five senses.
Students use their five senses to identify whether objects are solid, liquid or gas.
Copyright © Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/thenickster/3667839998


Students are given a variety of materials and asked to identify if each material as a solid, liquid or gas. They use their five senses — sight, sound, smell, texture and taste — to identify the other characteristics of each item.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Engineers who study material science are interested in the different types of materials and all the possibilities of how they might be used. Many materials are very specialized and have become even more-so through recent technical advancements. Engineers study and test materials to find out their uses and limitations so they know which materials are best suited for specific applications. As applies to the Olympics, high-tech, engineered fabrics protect athletes and improve their performance (such as aerodynamic materials for swimming, cycling, luge, etc.)

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Explain that there are different types of materials suited for different purposes and that engineers must decide which material is best suited for a specific task.
  • Describe how our five senses help us learn about different materials.

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

NGSS Performance Expectation

5-PS1-3. Make observations and measurements to identify materials based on their properties. (Grade 5)

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This activity focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Make observations and measurements to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence for an explanation of a phenomenon.

Alignment agreement:

Measurements of a variety of properties can be used to identify materials. (Boundary: At this grade level, mass and weight are not distinguished, and no attempt is made to define the unseen particles or explain the atomic-scale mechanism of evaporation and condensation.)

Alignment agreement:

Standard units are used to measure and describe physical quantities such as weight, time, temperature, and volume.

Alignment agreement:

  • Generate measurement data by measuring lengths using rulers marked with halves and fourths of an inch. Show the data by making a line plot, where the horizontal scale is marked off in appropriate units— whole numbers, halves, or quarters. (Grade 3) More Details

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  • The process of experimentation, which is common in science, can also be used to solve technological problems. (Grades 3 - 5) More Details

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  • Describe the properties of different materials. (Grades 3 - 5) More Details

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Materials List

For groups to share:

Bring in a selection of the assorted materials below (each has different properties). You will need enough materials so that when the class is broken up into groups of two, each group can have a different material to examine. Some suggestions:

  • Wooden blocks
  • Jell-O®
  • Peanut butter
  • Water
  • Ice
  • Paper
  • Ketchup
  • Pipe cleaners
  • Oil
  • Elmer's glue
  • Bubble gum
  • Scotch Tape®
  • LEGO® blocks
  • Eggs: hard boiled or raw
  • Saran Wrap®
  • Marshmallows
  • Feathers
  • Bouncy ball
  • Dog toy that squeaks
  • Chocolate
  • Silly putty
  • Sticky tack
  • Sandpaper
  • Wool
  • Sunflower seeds

For each group:

  • 1 12"-in. ruler
  • 1 beaker or empty water bottle (optional)
  • Food coloring (optional)
  • Two copies of the You Name It! Worksheet

Worksheets and Attachments

Visit [www.teachengineering.org/activities/view/cub_intro_lesson05_activity1] to print or download.

Pre-Req Knowledge

Students should be able to make basic measurements of length, height and width.


Welcome to the Imagination Engineering Laboratory. The lab is full of all sorts of various bottles and different-sized beakers with unknown items inside. Some of them are gooey, some look solid, some look empty, and some of them are dripping all over the place! There is equipment everywhere: scales, weights, electrical components, tools, monitors and meters, you name it — equipment of all types scattered on every free inch of space. You imagine all the clever things that are developed in this lab, and your interest is immediately piqued.

Certain types of engineers study materials science. They work with materials to decide which material is best suited for a certain product. Different materials have different characteristics or properties that make them the best material for a specific use. For example, what are some characteristics that would be necessary when designing a raincoat? Most importantly, raincoats need to be waterproof, but they should also be lightweight, durable and comfortable. So it might be a good idea then to create a raincoat out of a tarp-like material, instead of a metal sheet. All materials have properties that can be identified. One of the first things you can identify is whether the object is a solid, liquid or gas. Next, you can use your five senses to learn more about the material. Who knows what your five senses are? They are: sight, smell, touch, sound and taste. What can our senses help us learn about materials? (Answer: How big, heavy, smelly, rough, smooth, flexible, soft, hard, colorful, loud, quiet, etc. a specific material is.)

In this activity, you sort through some of the containers in the Imagination Engineering Lab and identify some of the properties and characteristics of each material you find. Engineers need to know all about the properties of a material that they are going to use, so that they can tell if it is going to be strong enough, flexible enough or lightweight enough for their purpose. Can you think of some more reasons why engineers need to know all about the materials they use? (Answer: Safety concerns, cost — is there another material that does the same job for less money, aesthetics and availability) You will be engineers today as you investigate different materials by using all of your five senses.


Before the Activity

  • Make copies of the You Name It! Worksheet for each student.
  • Gather all necessary materials.

With the Students

  1. Conduct the Introduction/Motivation section with the students.
  2. Split the class into groups of two students each.
  3. Give students clear directions on which items they may and may not taste. Be especially aware of any allergy issues.
  4. Let each group choose one material to observe and identify the different properties.
  5. When a group is done, have them switch materials with another group. Note: if it is a food item, give subsequent groups new food to taste.
  6. Give the students time to fill out the You Name It! Worksheet for six different materials. Encourage students to perform other tests on their materials: does it bounce? Does it pour? Can it stand by itself?
  7. Once students have filled in their You Name It! Worksheet, have them choose their favorite material and present their findings about it to the class.
  8. Review with the students how our five senses help us learn about different materials. Also review how engineers need to know about materials so that they can choose the right material for a specific task or invention.


Properties: A set of characteristics that describe an item.

Senses: Methods of perception; five senses are sight, smell, touch, sound and taste.


Pre-Activity Assessment

Discussion Question: Solicit, integrate, and summarize student responses. Ask the students to list the five senses. Ask how they can be used in scientific investigation, and why engineers need to be able to gather information using the five senses. Ask what information each sense can provide. (Explain that, for example, sight not only tells what an object looks like, but can also be used to measure an item.)

Activity Embedded Assessment

Student Observation: Observe students as they work with the different materials and help them as needed. Students may need assistance in measuring the height, length and width of their materials. As they work, review with students how our five senses help us learn about materials, and why engineers need to know about the properties of materials.

Post-Activity Assessment

Show and Tell: Have each group tell the class what they discovered about one of their materials. Ask them to go over what they learned using each of their five senses. Ask the students to think of a way that an engineer could use that material for a product or invention.

Safety Issues

Give students clear guidance on which items they may and may not eat. Be especially aware of allergy issues.

Troubleshooting Tips

Some of the materials may be messy, so use caution with your selections and how you distribute materials such as peanut butter and glue.

Activity Extensions

Have the students act as engineers and select two or three of the materials to create an invention. Allow students to design, then build, their invention. Have students present their inventions to the class.

Activity Scaling

For upper grades, use more difficult materials where there is more to observe and record. Have students observe up to 10 different items, and record their weight using a three-beam balance. Have students chart their results and make a table of characteristics for solids, liquids and gases.

For lower grades, use more basic supplies and have them observe only two or three items. Younger students may also not be comfortable with measuring yet.


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© 2006 by Regents of the University of Colorado.


Katherine Beggs; Denali Lander; Abigail Watrous; Janet Yowell

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education and National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. 0338326. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: August 23, 2019

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