Curricular Unit: The Physics of Fluid Mechanics

Quick Look

Grade Level: 9 (9-12)

Choose From: 2 lessons and 4 activities

Subject Areas: Physics, Problem Solving

Three photos: The above-water portion of a production platform in the Gulf of Mexico, which looks like a mass of pipes, cranes and hydraulic machinery above a wooden deck. Two small children play inside two clear inflatable water balls floating in a small pool. A hydraulic bridge angled up in a near vertical position to allow the passing of a boat through a shipping waterway.
(left to right) An offshore oil production platform, inflatable walk-on-water balls and a hydraulic bridge.
Copyright © (left to right) 2004 FlickrLickr, Chad Teer, Wikimedia Commons; 2010 Alina Zienowicz, Wikimedia Commons; 1996 Keith Edkins, Wikimedia Commons


From drinking fountains at playgrounds, water systems in homes, and working bathrooms at schools to hydraulic bridges and levee systems, fluid mechanics are an essential part of daily life. Fluid mechanics, the study of how forces are applied to fluids, is outlined in this unit as a sequence of two lessons and three corresponding activities. The first lesson provides a basic introduction to Pascal's law, Archimedes' principle and Bernoulli's principle and presents fundamental definitions, equations and problems to solve with students, as well as engineering applications. The second lesson provides a basic introduction to above-ground storage tanks, their pervasive use in the Houston Ship Channel, and different types of storage tank failure in major storms and hurricanes. The unit concludes with students applying what they have learned to determine the stability of individual above-ground storage tanks given specific storm conditions so they can analyze their stability in changing storm conditions, followed by a project to design their own storage tanks to address the issues of uplift, displacement and buckling in storm conditions.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Physics and fluid mechanics are integral parts of engineering, and both are typically presented as required courses at most universities for most engineering majors. Engineers apply Pascal's law, Archimedes' principle and Bernoulli's principle to design and construct various floating vessels, submersibles, airplanes, automobiles, pipelines and transport systems, hydraulic structures and even petrochemical storage tanks. Ocean and marine engineers study the offshore environment to design oil rigs and production platforms as well as floating vessels and subsea pipeline systems needed in the oil production process. Other engineers design different types of submersibles and remotely operated vehicles used to explore deep-water environments. Still other engineers apply these scientific concepts to become specialists in hydraulics—the use of liquid power to do work—and they design heavy machinery, water distribution systems, sewage networks, storm water management systems, bridges, dams, channels, canals and levees.

Unit Overview

Overview of topics by lesson: 1) Archimedes' principle, Pascal's law, Bernoulli's principle, 2) the concepts covered in the first lesson applied to the use and failure of above-ground storage tanks in the Houston Ship Channel.

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 (

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.

  • Asking questions and defining problems in grades 9–12 builds from grades K–8 experiences and progresses to formulating, refining, and evaluating empirically testable questions and design problems using models and simulations. (Grades 9 - 12) More Details

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NGSS Performance Expectation

HS-ESS2-5. Plan and conduct an investigation of the properties of water and its effects on Earth materials and surface processes. (Grades 9 - 12)

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This unit focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Plan and conduct an investigation individually and collaboratively to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence, and in the design: decide on types, how much, and accuracy of data needed to produce reliable measurements and consider limitations on the precision of the data (e.g., number of trials, cost, risk, time), and refine the design accordingly.

Alignment agreement:

The abundance of liquid water on Earth's surface and its unique combination of physical and chemical properties are central to the planet's dynamics. These properties include water's exceptional capacity to absorb, store, and release large amounts of energy, transmit sunlight, expand upon freezing, dissolve and transport materials, and lower the viscosities and melting points of rocks.

Alignment agreement:

The functions and properties of natural and designed objects and systems can be inferred from their overall structure, the way their components are shaped and used, and the molecular substructures of its various materials.

Alignment agreement:

  • Solve linear equations and inequalities in one variable, including equations with coefficients represented by letters. (Grades 9 - 12) More Details

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  • Technological innovation often results when ideas, knowledge, or skills are shared within a technology, among technologies, or across other fields. (Grades 9 - 12) More Details

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  • express and manipulate relationships among physical variables quantitatively, including the use of graphs, charts, and equations. (Grades 9 - 12) More Details

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  • express and interpret relationships symbolically in accordance with accepted theories to make predictions and solve problems mathematically, including problems requiring proportional reasoning and graphical vector addition. (Grades 9 - 12) More Details

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  • know that scientific theories are based on natural and physical phenomena and are capable of being tested by multiple independent researchers. Unlike hypotheses, scientific theories are well-established and highly-reliable explanations, but may be subject to change as new areas of science and new technologies are developed; (Grades 9 - 12) More Details

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More Curriculum Like This

Archimedes' Principle, Pascal's Law and Bernoulli's Principle

Students are introduced to Pascal's law, Archimedes' principle and Bernoulli's principle. Fundamental definitions, equations, practice problems and engineering applications are supplied.

Above-Ground Storage Tanks in the Houston Ship Channel

Students are provided with an introduction to above-ground storage tanks, specifically how and why they are used in the Houston Ship Channel. Students learn how the concepts of Archimedes' principle and Pascal's law act out in the form of the uplifting and buckling seen in the damaged and destroyed ...

Above-Ground Storage Tank Design Project

In this culminating activity, student groups act as engineering design teams to derive equations to determine the stability of specific above-ground storage tank scenarios with given tank specifications and liquid contents. With their flotation analyses completed and the stability determined, studen...

Fluid Power Basics

Students learn about the fundamental concepts important to fluid power, which includes both pneumatic (gas) and hydraulic (liquid) systems.

preview of 'Fluid Power Basics' Lesson
Middle School Lesson

Unit Schedule

Day 1 – Archimedes' Principle (lesson 1)

Day 2 – Pascal's Law (lesson 1)

Day 3 – Bernoulli's Principle (lesson 1)

Day 4 – Buoyancy & Pressure in Fluids: Soda Bottle Cartesian Diver activity

Day 5 – Rock and Boat: Density, Buoyancy & Archimedes’ Principle activity

(optional additional activity) – A Shot Under Pressure activity (120 minutes)

Day 6 – Above-Ground Storage Tanks in the Houston Ship Channel (lesson 2)

Days 7-10 – Students use class time to work on Above-Ground Storage Tank Design Project activity

Day 11 – Student presentations


© 2014 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2013 University of Houston


Emily Sappington, Mila Taylor

Supporting Program

National Science Foundation GK-12 and Research Experience for Teachers (RET) Programs, University of Houston


This digital library content was developed by the University of Houston's College of Engineering, based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under GK-12 grant no. DGE 0840889. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Last modified: December 8, 2019


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