Designing an interactive laboratory experiment to investigate buoyancy

Jonathan Cole, Peter Shannon

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract


Laboratory classes provide a visual and practical way of supplementing traditional teaching through lectures and tutorial classes. A criticism of laboratories in our School is that they are largely based on demonstration with insufficient participation by students. This provided the motivation to create a new laboratory experiment which would be interactive, encourage student enthusiasm with the subject and improve the quality of student learning.

The topic of the laboratory is buoyancy. While this is a key topic in the first-year fluids module, the laboratory has been designed in such a way that prior knowledge of the topic is unnecessary and therefore it would be accessible by secondary school pupils. The laboratory climaxes in a design challenge. However, it begins with a simple task involving students identifying some theoretical background information using given websites. They then have to apply their knowledge by developing some equations. Next, given some materials (a sheet of tinfoil, card and blu-tack), they have to design a vessel to carry the greatest mass without sinking. Thus, they are given an open-ended problem and have to provide a mathematical justification for their design. Students are expected to declare the maximum mass for their boat in advance of it being tested to create a sense of competition and fun. Overall, the laboratory involves tasks which begin at a low level and progressively get harder, incorporating understanding, applying, evaluating and designing (with reference to Bloom’s taxonomy).

The experiment has been tested in a modern laboratory with wall-mounted screens and access to the internet. Students enjoyed the hands-on aspect and thought the format helped their learning.

The use of cheap materials which are readily available means that many students can be involved at one time. Support documentation has been produced, both for the student participants and the facilitator. The latter is given advice on how to guide the students (without simply giving them the answer) and given some warning about potential problems the students might have.

The authors believe that the laboratory can be adapted for use by secondary school pupils and hope that it will be used to promote engineering in an engaging and enthusing way to a wider audience. To this end, contact has already been made with the Widening Participation Unit at the University to gain advice on possible next steps.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2016
Event23rd Annual Forum for Access and Continuing Education Conference - Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, United Kingdom
Duration: 29 Jun 201601 Jul 2016


Conference23rd Annual Forum for Access and Continuing Education Conference
Abbreviated titleFACE 2016
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


  • interactive laboratory
  • design challenge
  • engaging
  • engineering
  • secondary level


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