Pressure #16

(grades 7-12)
Soft-bound, 80 page book, 32 reproducible task cards, full teaching notes.

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Teaching about pressure is usually a matter of locating the right rubber stopper, with the correct number of holes, to fit a flask of the proper diameter, to accommodate glass tubing cut to the desired length. No wonder experiments on pressure usually end up as teacher demonstrations! We eliminate the hassle and safety hazards with rubber tubing, canning jars, rings and lids. Students construct airtight and watertight systems that measure pressure, expand balloons, siphon and pump water and more.

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Table of Contents for #16 Pressure:

Preparation and Support

A TOPS Model for Effective Science Teaching • Getting Ready • Gathering Materials • Sequencing Task Cards • Gaining a Whole Perspective• Long Range Objectives • Review/Test Questions

Activities and Lesson Notes

  1. 1. Squeeze Play
  2. 2. Pressure Print
  3. 3. Pascal's Principle
  4. 4. Press your Advantage
  5. 5. Ocean of Air
  6. 6. Snap and Pop
  7. 7. Towers of Water
  8. 8. Rise and Fall (1)
  9. 9. Breathing Machine
  10. 10. Bubbles Up
  11. 11. A Closed System
  12. 12. Submarine
  13. 13. Build a Manometer
  14. 14. Centimeters of Water
  15. 15. U Tube / Straight Tube
  16. 16. Rise and Fall (2)
  17. 17. Rise and Fall (3)
  18. 18. Inflow / Outflow
  19. 19. Bernoulli's Principle
  20. 20. Atomizers
  21. 21. Airfoil
  22. 22. Spin and Curve

  24. 23. Steam to Stream
  25. 24. A Perfect Vacuum?
  26. 25. A Very Tall Test Tube
  27. 26. Measure the Pressure
  28. 27. Vacuum Pump
  29. 28. Battery Pressure
  30. 29. Maximum Lung Pressure
  31. 30. Big Lift
  32. 31. Three Variables
  33. 32. Aneroid Barometer

Supplementary Pages

centimeter grid • area estimators • centimeter ruler • pressure scale


Complete Master List for #16 Pressure:

Key: (1st/2nd/3rd) denote needed quantities: (1st) enough for 1 student doing all activities; (2nd) enough for 30 students working in self-paced pairs; (3rd) enough for 30 students working in pairs on the same lesson. Starred* items may be purchased below.

  1. * 0.1/1/1: cup oil-based modeling clay
  2. 1/10/10: index cards
  3. 1/10/10: pair of scissors
  4. 1/2/4: bathroom scales (optional)
  5. 1/10/10: calculators
  6. * 1/5/5: rolls masking tape
  7. * 5/50/50: straight plastic straws
  8. * 2/20/20: meters 1/4 inch diameter tubing
  9. 3/30/30: plastic sandwich bags
  10. 4/40/40: meters string

  11. 3/9/30: textbooks
  12. 2/20/20: plastic produce bags
  13. * 1/10/10: paper clips
  14. 3/30/30: standard-sized canning jars
  15. * 3/30/30: standard-sized canning rings and lids
  16. * 1/6/10: small plastic syringes (perhaps 3 cc)
  17. * 1/4/10: large plastic syringes (perhaps 30 cc)
  18. * 1/10/10: small test tubes
  19. * 1/10/10: large test tubes
  20. 1/10/10: large plastic dishpan or equivalent to catch water

  21. 1/1/1: water source
  22. * 1/10/10: baby food jars (or beakers)
  23. * 1/10/10: clear soft-plastic drinking cups
  24. * 1/6/10: large nails, about 3 1/2 inches
  25. 1/6/10: needle-nose pliers
  26. * 6/60/60: washers with 5/16 inch diameter holes
  27. * 1/10/10: small balloons
  28. * 3/30/30: large rubber bands
  29. * 2/20/20: eyedroppers
  30. 2/20/20: wooden matches

  31. 1/10/10: cereal boxes
  32. 2/20/20: cups sand (or gravel, or dirt)
  33. * 1/1/1: bottle food coloring
  34. 1/1/1: jar petroleum jelly
  35. * 1/10/10: clothespins
  36. 1/4/10: pie tins
  37. 1/6/10: medium-sized tin cans
  38. 1/4/10: funnels
  39. 2/20/20: paper towels
  40. 1/6/10: Ping-Pong balls

  41. 1/6/10: cardboard toilet tissue tubes
  42. 1/2/5: hole punch tools
  43. * 1/6/10: candles and matches
  44. * 1/10/10: 100 mL graduated cylinders
  45. 1/4/10: large plastic milk jugs
  46. * 2/20/20: BB shot pellets
  47. 2/20/20: size-D batteries, dead or alive
  48. 1/1/1: large capacity (1000 gram) balance
  49. 1/4/10: long clipboards (or plywood squares, or thick telephone books)
  50. 1/1/1: bottle rubbing alcohol

  51. * 1/4/10: film canisters (or pill vials)
  52. 1/1/1: roll plastic wrap
  53. 1/4/10: flat toothpicks (optional)
  54. 1/10/10: large cider jugs (optional)

Convenient Shopping:

Baby Food Jars - assorted

without lids

Each set includes 4 small, 4 medium and 4 large glass jars.


9 inch balloons, assorted colors

Some students may have latex allergy. Be sure to check before using.

BB Shot

at least 30 BBs, 5/32 inch in diameter

Needed for #09 Floating and Sinking and #16 Pressure.

Candles - emergency

cylindrical, 5 inches by about 3/4 inches diameter

Also called utility candles. A handy heating source. Correctly sized for #09 Floating and Sinking. Drip catchers not included.


16-mm film-canister, snap-on lid

Once ubiquitous, now hard to find. Needed for #09 Floating and Sinking, #16 Pressure, and #23 Rocks and Minerals.

Canning Rings with Lids

fit regular-mouth canning jars

These may be available only seasonally in some stores. Avoid wide-mouth size. Needed for #16 Pressure and #17 Light. Only rings (not lids) are used in #40 Earth, Moon & Sun, and #43 Focus Pocus.

Clay - modeling

oil-based, non-drying

Sold by the 100 gram stick, about 1/4 cup, in assorted colors (our choice). One stick serves a whole classroom for TOPS applications.


wooden, spring-action

These are handy lab items to keep in stock. We use them as bulb holders, tongs, clips, and more.

Cups - plastic

9 or 10 ounce; clear, flexible, plastic

"Solo" brand or equivalent sold in grocery stores is suitable. Avoid brittle plastic. Used in #16 Pressure.


glass, with rubber bulbs and screw-on plastic bottle top

These have many lab uses. You may purchase them separately here, or with 1/2 ounce dropper bottles (as item #1121).

Separately, these also double as Cartesian Divers in #200 Diving into Pressure & Buoyancy. If you already have droppers, test them in advance to see if they make good 'divers': Remove plastic bottle top, if any. Dropper must float when empty, then sink with a one-squeeze-intake of water. Test that the seal between bulb and barrel is water tight: The empty dropper should float for a day or so in a glass of water, without taking on visible water.

Food Coloring - blue

liquid, dispensed in 1 fl. oz. squeeze bottle

A handy science supply used to make water more visible. Used in #39 Corn and Beans, #41 Planets and Stars, and several other TOPS modules.

Graduated Cylinder - 100 mL

shatter resistant plastic on stable base

An important lab inquiry tool for measuring larger liquid volumes.

Nails - 3 1/2 inch

steel carpenter's flat-head nail, 16-penny

A specialty item supporting #42 Focus Pocus and #20 Magnetism.

Paper Clips

size #1, steel, box of 100

Paper clips have 1001 uses in TOPS experiments, and science in general. Feel free to use paper clips you already have, but be aware that different brands come in different sizes and weights. In experiments where uniformity is important, don't mix brands.

Rubber Bands - assorted

10 grams each of thin, medium and thick

You get 30 grams of soft, strong, durable rubber bands: thin #16 (about 50), medium #32 (about 20), and heavy-duty #64 (about 10). These sizes are specifically selected to work in most TOPS experiments.

Straws - straight

plastic, thin

Any length straw, between 0.20 and 0.25 inches in diameter is suitable. Grocery stores generally carry straws with flexible "elbows." You can use those if you cut off the bendable section before using.

Syringes - large diameter

10 mL capacity, about 2 teaspoons

Syringes are a handy lab item for measuring out precise amounts of liquid, creating instant vacuums, and feeling the amazing force of atmospheric pressure. Keep 2 different diameters on hand to illustrate how the force of pressure changes with applied area. You can also buy syringes in farm stores. Those intended for oral medication are sold without needles. If you must purchase the needle, make sure it is removable.

This is a specialty item for #16 Pressure.

Syringes - small diameter

3 mL capacity, about 1/10 ounce

Syringes are a handy lab item for measuring out precise amounts of liquid, creating instant vacuums, and feeling the amazing force of atmospheric pressure. Keep 2 different diameters on hand to illustrate how the force of pressure changes with applied area. You can also buy syringes in farm stores. Those intended for oral medication are sold without needles. If you must purchase the needle, make sure it is removable.

This is a specialty item for #14 Kinetic Model and #16 Pressure.

Tape - masking

3/4 inch x 55 yd roll

A handy science supply used in most TOPS modules.

Test Tube - large disposable

36 mL capacity, 20 mm OD, 6 inch (150 mm) length

A lighter weight rimless Pyrex test tube made with thinner glass.

Test Tube - large reusable

34 mL capacity, 20 mm OD, 6 inch (150 mm) length

A tough Pyrex test tube made with rim and thicker glass. Has a white spot for labeling.

Test Tube - small disposable

6 mL capacity, 12 mm OD, 3 inch (75 mm) length

A lighter weight rimless Pyrex test tube made with thinner glass.

Test Tube - small reusable

9 mL capacity with 13 mm OD and 4 inch (100 mm) length

A tough Pyrex test tube made with rim and thicker glass. Has a white spot for labeling.

Tubing - medium ID

clear plastic, 1/4 inch ID, 3/8 inch OD

This diameter tubing, fitted through small washers (item #1310) and sealed with modeling clay (item #1150) creates air and water-tight seals in #16 Pressure.

Washers - small

7/8 inch flat washer with 3/8 inch hole

Used in many TOPS labs. Item #1290 (medium tubing) used in #16 Pressure fits through these smaller washers.

Teaching Tips for #16 Pressure:

We encourage improvisation - it's one of the main goals of our hands-on approach! You and your students might invent a simpler, sturdier or more accurate system; might ask a better question; might design a better extension. Hooray for ingenuity! When this occurs, we'd love to hear about it and share it with other educators. Please send ideas and photos to

Lesson by Lesson Objectives for #16 Pressure:

  1. Lesson 1: To calculate pressures that squeeze clay when you stand on it. To observe how these pressures increase as your applied force is distributed over decreasing areas.
  2. Lesson 2: To estimate pressures, in Newtons/cm^2, that one exerts while standing on the floor. To compare these pressures with the earth's atmospheric pressure.
  3. Lesson 3: To feel a direct transfer of pressure between squeezing a bag and inflating your lungs. To understand that fluids transfer pressure changes to all points in a closed system; that these changes act in all directions.
  4. Lesson 4: To experience how force increases as pressure is applied over larger areas. To observe how fluid systems give a force advantage at the expense of distance.
  5. Lesson 5: To calculate the force of the atmosphere pushing against known areas. To feel the effect of this force when the equalizing pressure is partially reduced on the opposite side.
  6. Lesson 6: To experience the full force of earth's atmosphere pressing against a vacuum. To observe how this force increases with increasing area.
  7. Lesson 7: To observe how atmospheric pressure acts in all directions, holding water inside a test tube. To use atmospheric pressure to transfer water with a straw.
  8. Lesson 8: To observe how water moves downward in response to gravity or upward in response to pressure. To construct a 1-hole cup for use in later activities.
  9. Lesson 9: To understand how the diaphragm regulates air pressure in the chest cavity, causing the lungs to expand and contract.
  10. Lesson 10: To support a column of water with atmospheric pressure, then siphon it down with gravity.
  11. Lesson 11: To apply Pascal's principle to a closed system, observing the effects of pressure changes in an eyedropper half full of water. To construct a 1-hole sealing lid for use in later activities.
  12. Lesson 12: To explain the sinking and floating action of an eyedropper as water is forced in and out of the dropper by changes in water pressure.
  13. Lesson 13: To construct a U-tube manometer. To understand that it measures differences in pressure, not total pressure.
  14. Lesson 14: To relate readings on the U-tube manometer to total pressure. To investigate the relationship between pressure and fluid depth.
  15. Lesson 15: To discover that atmospheric pressure supports the same difference in water levels in both straight tubes and U-tubes. To observe that height, not volume, is the variable that matters.
  16. Lesson 16: To observe how water flows in response to changes in pressure or gravity. To understand that water seeks its own common level, unless supported by a difference in pressure.
  17. Lesson 17: To reinforce the idea that water height, not volume, determines pressure.
  18. Lesson 18: To analyze a fluid system that is driven by continuous changes in pressure.
  19. Lesson 19: To apply Bernoulli's principle of low-pressure fluid streams to simple demonstrations involving a Ping-Pong ball.
  20. Lesson 20: To measure the low pressure effects of moving air with a manometer, relating the speed of the air stream to the magnitude of the pressure changes. To construct an atomizer.
  21. Lesson 21: To construct an airfoil and observe how it flies. To account for its lift by applying Bernoulli's principle.
  22. Lesson 22: To account for the curved flight of spinning Ping-Pong ball using Bernoulli's principle.
  23. Lesson 23: To fill a test tube with steam. To observe how the atmosphere pushes water inside to fill the vacuum created as the steam condenses.
  24. Lesson 24: To create a near vacuum in a test tube. To break its clay seal under water and watch the atmosphere push water into the void.
  25. Lesson 25: To calculate the maximum length that a test tube could reach and still have all its water supported by atmospheric pressure.
  26. Lesson 26: To experimentally calculate atmospheric pressure in Newtons/cm^2.
  27. Lesson 27: To design and build a vacuum pump. To understand how one-way valves and atmospheric pressure act to lift water.
  28. Lesson 28: To fill a jar with just enough water to simulate a pressure of 1/10 atmosphere. To develop a standard of comparison to use in the next activity.
  29. Lesson 29: To estimate the maximum air pressure that once can exert with the lungs.
  30. Lesson 30: To calculate the maximum load you can lift by blowing air into a produce bag. To use body weight to confirm that your calculated force has the correct order of magnitude.
  31. Lesson 31: To observe how changes in temperature and volume affect pressure. To develop equations that relate these variables.
  32. Lesson 32: To model how an aneroid barometer works. To build an instrument that measures atmospheric pressure.

National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996) for #16 Pressure:

TEACHING Standards

These 32 Task Cards promote excellence in science teaching by these NSES criteria:
Teachers of science...
A: ...plan an inquiry-based science program. (p. 30)
B: and facilitate learning. (p. 32)
C: ...engage in ongoing assessment of their teaching and of student learning. (p. 37)
D: and manage learning environments that provide students with the time, space, and resources needed for learning science. (p. 43)

CONTENT Standards

These 32 Task Cards contain fundamental content as defined by these NSES guidelines (p. 109).
• Represent a central event or phenomenon in the natural world.
• Represent a central scientific idea and organizing principle.
• Have rich explanatory power.
• Guide fruitful investigations.
• Apply to situations and contexts common to everyday experiences.
• Can be linked to meaningful learning experiences.
• Are developmentally appropriate for students at the grade level specified.

Unifying Concepts and Processes

NSES Framework: Systems, order, and organization • Evidence, models and explanation • Constancy, change, and measurement • Evolution and equilibrium • Form and function
Core Concepts/Processes: Pressure is a force distributed uniformly over an Area (P = F/A). • We live under a vast ocean of air that exerts pressure in all directions. • Pressure in open and closed systems.

Science as Inquiry (content standard A)

NSES Framework: Identify questions that can be answered through scientific investigations. • Design and conduct a scientific investigation. • Use appropriate tools and techniques to gather, analyze, and interpret data. • Develop descriptions, explanations, predictions, and models using evidence. • Think critically and logically to make the relationships between evidence and explanations. • Recognize and analyze alternative explanations and predictions. • Communicate scientific procedures and explanations. • Use mathematics in all aspects of scientific inquiry.
Core Inquiries: Observe, measure and predict changes in pressure in centimeters of water and pounds per square inch.

Physical Science (content standard B)

NSES Framework:Motions and forces • Structure and properties of matter
Core Content: Mechanical pressure • Air pressure • Water pressure • Atmospheric pressure • Fluids • Siphons • Pumps • Barometers • Ideal gas relationships

Science and Technology (content standard E)

NSES Framework: Abilities of technological design • Understanding about science and technology Core Content: Construct air-tight and water-tight systems that pump, siphon, measure pressure, and more.