Breaking the Tension: Surface Tension 1

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Learners explore how the attractive forces between water molecules create surface tension and allow certain objects to float on the surface of water. Learners also discover how detergent breaks surface tension. In an investigation called "Walk on Water," learners attempt to make a paperclip float on water, then in an investigation called "Sink to the Bottom," they add detergent to the water to observe what happens to the paperclip. The activities raise questions about how adding detergents or pollutants to a pond would affect organisms that live in water environments. This activity can be combined with the "Below the Surface" activity found in the same educational resource.

Quick Guide

Preparation Time:
10 to 30 minutes

Learning Time:
30 to 45 minutes

Estimated Materials Cost:
$1 - $5 per group of students

Age Range:
Ages 8 - 14

Resource Types:
Activity, Experiment/Lab Activity, Lesson/Lesson Plan


Materials List (per group of students)

  • student journals and writing tools
  • 1/2 liter bottle
  • pie tins or 16-oz plastic cups with wide rim
  • paperclips
  • plastic fork
  • liquid dish detergent
  • magnifying lenses
  • sponges


  • Earth and Space Science
    • Earth Structure
      • Oceans and Water
  • Life Sciences
    • Ecology
      • Human Impact
  • Physical Sciences
    • Chemistry
      • Solutions
    • States of Matter
      • Liquids
    • Structure and Properties of Matter
      • Atomic Structure
  • The Nature of Science
    • The Scientific Process
      • Asking Questions
      • Conducting Investigations
      • Gathering Data
      • Formulating Explanations


To use this activity, learners need to:

  • see
  • read
  • touch

Learning styles supported:

  • Involves teamwork and communication skills
  • Involves hands-on or lab activities


Components that are part of this resource:

Includes alignment to state and/or national standards:

This resource is part of:

Access Rights:

  • Free access


Source Collection

  • Science After School Consumer's Guide


  • All rights reserved, State of New Jersey, 2006

Funding Source:

  • No Child Left Behind Act of 2001