Rensselaer Engineers Help High School Students Explore the Physics of Everyday Life
Faculty-Student Team at Rensselaer Polytechnic
Institute Creates Fun-Filled “Science in a Box” Kits for
University Professors to Run Workshops at Local High
Educational outreach is a critical component of nearly every
research grant awarded by the federal government or other
funding organizations. Along with conducting experiments and
documenting the results, grant recipients are tasked with
reaching out to high schools and lower schools to help expose
and excite students about science, technology, engineering, and
mathematics. Not every grant recipient, however, knows how or
where to start these outreach activities.
Engineers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
are here to help. Professor Patrick
Underhill and senior Hannah Fix spent the summer developing
four “kits” that contain everything needed for researchers to
run a fun-filled, memorable educational outreach workshop on
the topic of fluid physics at their local high school. Along
with different everyday objects—from water guns to corn syrup
to caulk—the kits include worksheets for students, presentation
slides, and a teacher’s guide. The kits are field-tested,
peer-reviewed, and intended to be donated to the high school so
teachers can duplicate the demonstrations and experiments.
See a video of Underhill and Fix talking about the project
“We believe these kits are a great way to illustrate some of
the basic principles of fluid physics that are taught in high
school physics and chemistry classes,” said Underhill,
assistant professor in the Howard P. Isermann Department of
Chemical and Biological Engineering at Rensselaer. “We want
to arm researchers and graduate students with the right tools
to make their educational outreach programs as impactful as
possible, and to help inspire and encourage high school
students to pursue a university degree and maybe even a career
in science, technology, engineering, or math.”
Fix, an aerospace and mechanical engineering major from
Frederick, Md., has been working with Underhill to develop and
refine the kits. She said the kits were designed to include
everyday objects that are familiar to the students, but also
easy and inexpensive for the teacher to replace if lost or
broken. Worksheets in the kits guide the students through the
activity. Students are introduced to the topics and then
calculate theoretical results using formulas, before conducting
the experiments and comparing the theoretical results with the
“Most of the experiments are things you see in everyday
life. We’re using these kits to get the students interested and
excited in the physics behind these everyday things,” said Fix,
who intended to study veterinary medicine but was inspired by
her high school’s robotics club to pursue engineering.
The four kits are:
Water Gun: How many pumps of a water gun
does it take to hit a target at a known distance?
Students try to hit targets with a water gun, and measure
the pressure required to make the water travel to the target.
Key learning points: Ballistics, conservation of
energy, Bernoulli principle, ideal gas law, conservation of
Viscous Drag: How long does it take a
sphere to fall through a liquid?
Students measure the time it takes two different glass
beads, of different diameters, to fall through water or corn
syrup. Key learning points: Force balances, gravity,
viscous drag, buoyancy.
Heron’s Fountain: operation and
Students build a Heron’s Fountain from plastic drink
containers, copper tubing, and silicon sealant, before
demonstrating the fountain. Key learning points:
Bernoulli’s equation, pressure, potential energy, kinetic
Gravity-Defying Siphon: Why is water
flowing up instead of down?
Students build a siphon that pumps water up a tube and then
down a different tube, and are asked to calculate and
demonstrate the amount of time it takes to fill a bucket.
Key learning points: Bernoulli’s equation,
conservation of mass, conservation of energy, viscous
The kits were informed by direct feedback from high school
teachers. Additionally, Underhill and Fix will soon send out
about a dozen kits to graduate students and university
professors. These test users will run workshops with the kits
at their local high schools, and provide feedback and
suggestions which will be incorporated into the final kits.
Once finalized, Underhill plans to spread word about the kits
and send them out free of charge to interested university
professors and graduate students so they may run high school
outreach events. Following the event, the kits will be left
with the high school teachers for later use. The final kits are
expected to be available in November.
This project and the kits are funded by the Division of Fluid
Dynamics of the American Physical Society, with
support from the Undergraduate
Research Program at Rensselaer. Underhill and Fix are
working on the project in partnership with researchers at the
United States Naval Academy and Los Alamos National
Underhill is a faculty member of the Center for Biotechnology and
Interdisciplinary Studies at Rensselaer.
For more information on Underhill’s research at Rensselaer,
Contact: Michael Mullaney
Phone: (518) 276-6161