What is in the Water?

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In this activity, learners use open inquiry to learn about the process of science as well as gain experience regarding the Law of Conservation of Mass, dissolution, and density. Learners replicate the scientific process that aquatic chemists use to study dissolved and particulate components in natural water samples to determine the level of contamination, the overall water quality, and the optical characteristics of a sample. Learners also replicate the process chemical oceanographers use to conduct research. At the conclusion of this lesson, learners identify a mystery solution.

Quick Guide

Preparation Time:
10 to 30 minutes

Learning Time:
1 to 2 hours

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)

  • 25 clear vials (40 ml works well)--filled as described in Table 1. These can be glass or plastic.
  • 5 mystery vials--with Tea and dirt (or a real environmental sample if colored and/or containing particulate materials)
  • Tap water
  • Food coloring (red, blue, yellow, green)--1 drop should color the solution brightly
  • Salt--enough to taste, but not supersaturated (needs to be completely dissolved)
  • Soft Soap--enough to cause a foam when shaken vigorously
  • Sugar--enough to taste, but not supersaturated (needs to be completely dissolved)
  • Sand--just a sprinkle that is visible to the eye
  • Vinegar--enough to smell
  • Dirt--enough to see
  • Tea--enough to tint the water yellow


  • Earth and Space Science
    • Earth Structure
      • Oceans and Water
  • Physical Sciences
    • Chemistry
      • Chemistry of Life
      • Solutions
    • Structure and Properties of Matter
      • Mass and Weight
      • Volume and Density
  • The Nature of Science
    • The Scientific Process
      • Conducting Investigations
      • Gathering Data
      • Formulating Explanations

Informal Categories

  • Nature and Environment


To use this activity, learners need to:

  • see
  • see color
  • read
  • smell
  • touch

Learning styles supported:

  • Involves hands-on or lab activities


Includes alignment to state and/or national standards:

This resource is part of:

Access Rights:

  • Free access




  • All rights reserved, Centers for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence, 2012

Funding Sources:

  • National Science Foundation, 0827983
  • National Science Foundation, 0828142
  • National Science Foundation, 0827953
  • NOAA National Sea Grant
  • Office of Naval Research
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration