Water Bugs

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Some bugs can walk on the surface of a lake, stream, river, pond or ocean. In this activity, learners will investigate surface tension of and how it prevents these bugs from sinking under the water’s surface. Learners will test how different substances affect surface tension using paper clips "bugs". Step-by-step instructions are included with photos along with safety recommendations. Activity guide includes a "What's going on?" explanation and relevant connections to water striders and the effects of pollution on aquatic life.

Quick Guide

Preparation Time:
Under 5 minutes

Learning Time:
5 to 10 minutes

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

Age Range:
Ages 8 - adult

Resource Types:
Activity, Model


Materials List (per group of students)

  • 4-6 small metal paper clips, 2.5-3.5 cm long (Do not use large or jumbo paper clips, or paper clips with ridges)
  • 3 bowls or wide-mouthed containers
  • Water
  • 1 handful of dirt, sand, or coffee grounds
  • Spoon
  • Liquid dishwashing detergent or liquid hand soap


  • Earth and Space Science
    • Earth Structure
      • Oceans and Water
  • Engineering and Technology
    • Technology
      • Manufacturing
  • Life Sciences
    • Diversity of Life
      • Animals
    • Ecology
      • Ecosystems
      • Human Impact

Informal Categories

  • Nature and Environment


Learning styles supported:

  • Uses STEM to solve real-world problems
  • Involves hands-on or lab activities


This resource is part of:

Access Rights:

  • Free access


Source Collection

  • DIY Science Apps


  • , The Regents of the University of California, 2015

Funding Source:

  • National Science Foundation, DRL1114663