“Dear Soap Boat 2.0…”

"Single shot" soap boat

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?

Join the conversation.

All comments must abide by the ChemEd X Comment Policy, are subject to review, and may be edited. Please allow one business day for your comment to be posted, if it is accepted.

Comments 6

Tom Kuntzleman's picture
Tom Kuntzleman | Fri, 02/14/2014 - 17:16

Hi Erica,

Thanks for checking out my blog.  Our college students had a blast with this activity, so we presented it at our annual Halloween chemistry outreach event.  It really is a great activity, isn't it?  I love how simple this activity is to carry out.

Deanna Cullen's picture
Deanna Cullen | Mon, 04/28/2014 - 15:45

I shared this activity with my ChemClub and they loved it. We are planning outreach with the elementary school and the ChemClub students have chosen this activity as one to try with those students. Thanks for the idea!

Erica Jacobsen's picture
Erica Jacobsen | Mon, 04/28/2014 - 17:05

Great choice for outreach. I love this activity too, and I was only doing it by myself in my kitchen. :) An upcoming post on the ACS ChemClub blog will have some photos of another Club using it at their outreach event too. Hope your students have lots of fun!

Paul Roberts | Thu, 03/05/2015 - 10:12

I have experimented with some of the alcohols identified in the article Tom Kuntzleman referred to and I find them very toxic for use with children.  The 3-Methyl-1-butanaol was particularly objectionable even at 10% solution.  it would definitely require very good ventialation even to open the bottle.  The 2-Propynol wasn't noticeable.  Does anybody recommend a formula that won't

Erica Jacobsen's picture
Erica Jacobsen | Thu, 03/05/2015 - 23:41

I can appreciate the fact that the authors tested a wide variety of options that could be used with the soap boat experiment, including sharing information on the safety of each (full article available to JCE subscribers, http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/ed400316a). When I adapted the procedure and materials in the article for use with high school chemistry clubs (and potential outreach use with younger students), my student handout included only testing with liquid dish soap and 70% isopropyl alcohol, since they are available in grocery or drugstores. I also included a suggestion to try other household liquids, with the instructor's permission; the instructor notes mentioned my testing with acetone-based fingernail polish remover and witch hazel, both available from a drugstore. I'd recommend using the activity with these more common materials.

Erica Jacobsen's picture
Erica Jacobsen | Thu, 03/12/2015 - 14:41

Another reader sent information to me, cautioning one to be careful not to equate toxicity with smell. A deeper look at the specific warnings each chemical carries would be warranted. It was interesting that the comment arrived the same day that my husband jokingly made a comment at the supper table that he loves the smell of carbon monoxide gas.