How Big is Small

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In this classic hands-on activity, learners estimate the length of a molecule by floating a fatty acid (oleic acid) on water. This lab asks learners to record measurements and make calculations related to volume, diameter, area, and height. Learners also convert meters into nanometers. Includes teacher and student worksheets but lacks in depth procedure information. The author suggests educators search the web for more complete lab instructions.

Quick Guide

Preparation Time:
Under 5 minutes

Learning Time:
45 to 60 minutes

Estimated Materials Cost:
$1 - $5 per student

Age Range:
Ages 11 - 18

Resource Types:
Activity, Experiment/Lab Activity


Materials List (per student)

  • Isopropyl
  • Graduated Cylinder
  • Pipette
  • Data sheet
  • Pencil
  • Calculator (optional)
  • Ruler
  • Tray


  • Earth and Space Science
    • Earth Structure
      • Oceans and Water
  • Engineering and Technology
    • Engineering
      • Nanotechnology
  • Mathematics
    • Algebra
      • Equations and Inequalities
      • Variables and Expressions
    • Data Analysis and Probability
      • Data Collection
    • Measurement
      • Units of Measurement
      • Size and Scale
      • Circles
    • Number and Operations
      • Decimals
      • Exponents
      • Fractions
      • Multiples and Factors
  • Physical Sciences
    • Chemistry
      • Acids and Bases
      • Solutions
    • States of Matter
      • Liquids
    • Structure and Properties of Matter
      • Atomic Structure
      • Volume and Density
  • The Nature of Science
    • The Scientific Process
      • Conducting Investigations
      • Gathering Data


To use this activity, learners need to:

  • see
  • read
  • touch

Learning styles supported:

  • Involves hands-on or lab activities


This resource is part of:

Access Rights:

  • Free access


  • Muller, Eric


  • All rights reserved, Exploratorium, 2007