Hands-on Activity: Fun with Air-Powered Pneumatics

Contributed by: Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power RET and ERC, University of Minnesota
Photo shows three teenagers around a classroom table working on a device.
Students test their pneumatic system.


Working as engineering teams in this introductory pneumatics lab, students design and build working pneumatic (air-powered) systems. The goal is to create systems that launch balls into the air. They record and analyze data from their launches.

Engineering Connection

Pneumatic systems, called circuits, are used extensively by engineers to power and control robotics. Engineers design pneumatic circuits to perform activities in manufacturing and other industrial applications that require repetition and consistency. One of the most common applications of pneumatics used by engineers is safely controlling a pneumatic cylinder to provide linear force.

Educational Standards

  •   Common Core State Standards for Mathematics: Math
  •   International Technology and Engineering Educators Association: Technology
  •   Minnesota: Math
  •   Minnesota: Science
  •   Next Generation Science Standards: Science

Pre-Req Knowledge

Familiarity with metric measurement, creating data tables and graphs.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:
  • Design and build a pneumatic circuit.
  • Graph two variables and reach a conclusion.
  • Plan and conduct a controlled experiment.

Materials List

Each group needs:
  • 2.5 meters polyurethane green tubing, 5/32" X 3/32" (McMaster, 5648K233)
  • air reservoir, 1-1/4" bore, 6" length, 8.7 cu inch, 1/8" NPT female, 250 psi (JH Foster, D-27715-A-6)
  • relief valve, 60 psi, pull ring, ¼" NPT (Grainger, 5A707)
  • pressure gauge, 0 to 60 psi, ½", 1/8" NPT, lower (Surplus Center, 21-1663-N)
  • 1 control valve, hand-operated, 3-way 2-position, 1/8" NPT female ports (SMC, NVM130-N01-08)
  • 1 cylinder, 7/16" bore, 2" stroke, single acting, spring return, nose-mounted (JH Foster, 012)
  • fittings (McMaster): 1 tee, 5/32" tube, glass-filled nylon (SMC, KQ2T03-00); and 2 orange plugs, 5/32" (SMC, KQ2P-03)
  • hex nipple, 1/8" NPT, brass, package of 10 (Grainger, 6MN96; use 2 of 10 for extension activity materials, listed below)
  • tee, 1/8" NPT, brass, package 10 (Grainger, 6MN48)
  • bushing adapter, 1/8" M to ¼" F NPT (Grainger, 6MN88)
  • three 10-32 fender washers (McMaster, 91090A120)
  • two 10-32 nuts (McMaster, 90480A195)
  • two 10-32 lock nuts (McMaster, 90633A411)
  • three10-32 wing nut (McMaster, 90866A111)
  • two 3/8" washers (McMaster, 91090A112)
  • plastic cap, fits 1-1/8" outer diameter, 19/32" inside height (McMaster, 9567K15)
  • 2 fittings, 5/32" tube to 10-32 UNF male, glass-filled nylon (SMC, KQ2H03-32)
  • 6 fittings, 5/32" tube to 1/8" NPT male pipe, glass-filled nylon (SMC, KQ2H03-34S)
  • 1 fitting, 5/32" tube to 1/8" NPT female pipe, glass-filled nylon (SMC, KQ2F03-34)
  • tire filling valve (Schrader valve), 1/8" NPT (Surplus Center, 455-NN-N)
  • bicycle pump
  • 1 gallon unlined paint can (no ears) with lid (Empty Paint Cans, 30WS1U)
  • tennis ball (or any small ball)
  • meter stick
  • safety goggles, pair per person
To share with the entire class:
  • drill with metal cutting bit to drill holes in paint cans
  • Teflon tape
For the extension activity, each group needs:
  • 1.5 meters polyurethane green tubing, 5/32" X 3/32" (McMaster, 5648K233)
  • 1 control valve, hand-operated, 3-way 2-position, 1/8" NPT female ports (SMC, NVM130-N01-08)
  • 1 cylinder, 7/16" bore, 2" stroke, single acting, spring return, nose-mounted (JH Foster, 012)
  • fitting (McMaster): 1 tee, 5/32" tube, glass-filled nylon (SMC, KQ2T03-00)
  • 16-oz white HDPE tub (Container & Packaging Supply, T013)
  • support stand with post (Cynmar, 120-30358)
  • right angle clamp (Cynmar, 120-30626)
  • hex nipple, 1/8" NPT, brass, need 2 of package of 10 from materials listed above (Grainger, 6MN96)
  • two 10-32 fender washers (McMaster, 91090A120)
  • two 10-32 wing nuts (McMaster, 90866A111)
  • 1 fitting, 5/32" tube to 1/8" NPT female pipe, glass-filled nylon (SMC, KQ2F03-34)
Suggested suppliers:


What do home construction, dentistry and organ playing have in common? (Don't expect a "correct" answer; we are just trying to get students thinking.)
What kinds of tools are used in constructing a home? What do you hear when dental tools start and stop? What creates the powerful sound in a pipe organ? (Now we are trying to get students to recognize that these are all examples of using air power).
Can you think of some other examples of how we use air power? (Possible answers: Air brakes on buses, trucks and trains; air compressors; air soft/BB guns; Nerf guns; jackhammer; nail gun; robots; etc.) All of these are examples of air power, called pneumatics. Pneumatics is the use of pressurized gas to control mechanical motion.
Today we are going to act as teams of engineers using pneumatics to design and build a ball launcher.


A tank that stores compressed air.
A holding device that forms a collar around the tubing to secure it.
Used to turn air flow on or off.
A mechanical device that produces force as a result of compressed gas.
The use of pressurized gas to control mechanical motion.
A device that measures the air pressure of a system.
Used to control or limit the pressure in the system.


We suggest that the teacher create and familiarize him/herself with the components and the system in advance of conducting the activity with the students. Refer to the Pneumatics Lab Set-Up Photos attachment, which contains larger versions of Figures 1-3.
Photo shows many linked components with these labels: fittings are attached with Teflon tape; washers and nuts used to attach cylinder to can and plastic cap; bike pump; Schrader valve and fitting; tubing; fitting with collet; accumulator (air tank); brass tee with fittings; pressure relief valve; plastic tee; pressure gauge; control valve, drilled hole; cylinder mounted in can; plastic cap attached to cylinder; tennis ball.
Figure 1. The components of a pneumatic circuit.
Photo shows inside a paint can with many labeled parts: washer to stabilize cylinder, pneumatic cylinder, male fitting with collet for tubing, plastic tubing, drilled hole in side of can. Note: Hole drilled through can where cylinder attaches (approx. ¼-inch).
Figure 2. The inside of the paint can with mounted cylinder and parts.
Photo shows the outside of a paint can with parts labeled: 1-gallon can (paint, coffee or similar), nut and washer to stabilize cylinder, cylinder rod, plastic cap secured with a nut and washer on each side, any small ball.
Figure 3. Outside of the paint can with the cylinder extended and supporting a tennis ball.
Before the Activity
  • Gather components and lay out each team's "kit" on tables (omitting parts for the extension activity).
With the Students
  1. Divide the class into groups of three students each.
  2. Direct the teams to find a way to generate compressed air. (Expect students to locate the bike pump.)
  3. Direct the students to find a part to store the compressed air. (Expect students to locate the accumulator/tank.)
  4. Connect the bike pump to the tank and pump air through it.
  5. Direct the students to find a way of measuring the pressure in the system and connect it to the system. (Expect students to find the pressure gauge, tee connector and plug, and add this to the system.)
  6. Direct the students to find a component that would allow them to create motion with the stored air. (Expect students to find the cylinder that is attached to the paint can.)
  7. Have students attach the cylinder to the system and test it.
  8. Have students practice launching tennis balls with their designed systems.
  9. Have students maximize pressure within their systems.
  10. Have students create two-column data tables to record pressure vs. height data.
  11. Have students measure height of the tennis balls at different pressures and record data in their tables.
  12. After data collection, have students graph pressure vs. height.
  13. Ask students to extrapolate at a different psi, as described in the Assessment section.
  14. As time permits, conduct the extension activity.

Safety Issues

  • Preset the pressure relief valve at approximately 50-60 psi.
  • Wear safety goggles to prevent eye injuries.

Troubleshooting Tips

To avoid leakage, securely insert tubing into the collet.
The switch has a right and a wrong way; make sure it is inserted according to arrows on the switch.
To stabilize the launcher, use washers on both sides of the plastic cap.

Investigating Questions

  • Where might you use this type of technology? (Possible answers: Pneumatics are everywhere around us, including dental tools, automotive and carpentry tools, robotics, paintball guns, airsoft guns, jackhammers, tennis ball launchers, vehicle brakes, air compressors for nail guns, etc.)
  • What was the relationship between pressure and height of the ball? (Answer: The height depends on the pressure; they are directly proportional.)


Pre-Activity Assessment
Prediction: Ask students to predict the relationship between air pressure of the system and the height of the tennis ball after launched.
Activity Embedded Assessment
Engineering: Students should be able to demonstrate correctly-functioning pneumatic systems.
Post-Activity Assessment
Extrapolation: Using the graph created from their data, have students predict the height that could be achieved by 75 psi.

Activity Extensions

Discuss the engineering design process with students. The steps of the design process include: 1) define the problem, 2) come up with ideas [brainstorming], 3) select the most promising design, 4) communicate and plan the design, 5) create and test the design, and 6) evaluate and revise the design.
Have students use the extension materials to modify their original systems to not only launch a ball, but catch it as well. Have them follow the steps of the engineering design process to help them accomplish this task.

Activity Scaling

  • For lower grades, omit the data collection and graphing and just concentrate on the design and discussion of the system.
  • For upper grades, have students calculate the efficiency of the system by calculating energy changes of the system.


Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power. A National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center. Accessed December 29, 2009. http://ccefp.org/


Will Durfee, Alyssa Burger, Jacob Givand, Jeffrey Schreifels, and Melissa Schreifels


© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2009 University of Minnesota

Supporting Program

Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power RET and ERC, University of Minnesota


The authors gained experience and knowledge through an RET (Research Experience for Teachers) position at the Center for Compact and Efficient Fluid Power at the University of Minnesota. The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under National Science Foundation grant no. EEC 0540834. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: February 5, 2016

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