A fan letter for a chemistry experiment? Well, yes. I read Tom Kuntzleman’s blog post “Soap Boat 2.0” over four months ago and immediately bookmarked it. One of my regular projects is to develop materials that are sent to American Chemical Society (ACS) ChemClubs (see Deanna Cullen’s post on her school’s club). One of the chosen themes for the 2013–2014 resource packets I needed to write was water, to correspond with Chemists Celebrate Earth Day 2014. So I was already on the prowl for hands-on activities related to water, preferably things that used mainly consumer chemicals to make it as easy and accessible as possible for Clubs to use.
I was familiar with the soap boat activity, since I’d done it with my own kids at home. Neat, but a “one & done” sort of thing, with having to thoroughly clean out the pan after each time you run the boat. Tom’s highlight of the soap boat article points out the revolutionary aspect of Renney, Brewer, and Mooibroek’s take on this experiment—being able to continuously run such a boat, while still providing a high-interest way to discuss surface tension.
The activity lives up to its billing—it’s fabulous. I made the first and easiest type of boat, which the authors call a “single shot.” I tried it with a wax-coated cup rather than the polystyrene used by the authors. (Students could explore using wax-coated fast food drink cups?) Not using polystyrene allowed me to try the acetone-based fingernail polish remover I had in the house without dissolving the boat, along with 70% rubbing alcohol and witch hazel. The boats are a bit larger than a thumbnail and even with just a few drops of “fuel” they can nimbly skate across an entire baking dish.
I love how the article is so rich in content—one can just scratch the surface of the activity and concepts with younger students or take it deeper and build more difficult boats and add in a discussion of boiling point, vapor pressure, viscosity, and more with advanced students. In short, the perfect experiment to share. I’m hoping the high school ChemClub students will enjoy the fun of the activity while appreciating its chemistry, and also consider sharing it with younger students at an outreach event. The archives of J. Chem. Educ. have lots of activities that fit this mold—consumer chemicals and the ability to adapt them to different levels. What have you found that you love?