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In this activity, students will become familiar with the special properties of water by completing several activities that investigate the following physical properties/phenomena: cohesion, adhesion, surface tension, and capillary action.

Grade Level

Elementary School, Middle School, High School


By the end of this activity, students should be able to:

  • Explain the meaning of the terms cohesion, adhesion, surface tension, and capillary action.
  • Describe the unique behaviors of water molecules, and why they are important.

Chemistry Topics

This activity supports students’ understanding of:

  • Physical Properties
  • Properties of water
  • Molecular Structure
  • Polarity


Teacher Preparation: 20-30 minutes

Lesson: 45 minutes

Materials (per group)

  • 1 penny
  • 1 dropper or disposable pipet
  • 1 square of wax paper (2 x 2 inch)
  • 1 watch glass
  • 1 paperclip
  • 1 petri dish
  • 1 straw
  • Water (in a small cup/beaker)


  • Always wear safety goggles when handling chemicals in the lab.
  • Students should wash their hands thoroughly before leaving the lab.
  • When students complete the lab, instruct them how to clean up their materials and dispose of any chemicals.

Teacher Notes

  • At a high school level, it may be helpful if students have already learned about covalent bonds, polarity, and intermolecular forces (specifically hydrogen bonding), although you can also just introduce the concept of polarity for the purposes of this activity. At younger grade levels, students should understand that water molecules have partial positive and negative ends, or at least that water molecules are “sticky.” The properties/phenomena they will observe in this activity are a result of the attractions between the positive end of one molecule and the negative end of another. Some of the questions may need to be adjusted/deleted for younger grade levels.
  • I do the prelab together as a whole group, and then let them do the activities in groups of 3-4.
  • If your lab tables have their own sinks, the students can get water from the sink. If you do not have sinks at your lab table, you can provide a cup of water for each lab group.
  • For Part 1, you may want to clean the pennies first. There are several ways to do this – one simple way is to soak them for 5-10 minutes in ¼ cup vinegar or lemon juice with a teaspoon of salt mixed in. (But make sure they are rinsed and dried thoroughly before completing the activity!) Alternatively, you could have different student groups compare how many drops of water will fit on a clean penny vs. a dirty penny, or give each group one of each, or compare heads vs. tails.
  • For Part 2, it does not have to be a watch glass necessarily – any glass surface will do. For example, you could use a microscope slide, or turn a glass beaker upside down and use the bottom of the beaker. In any case, you should see the edges of the water droplet attract more to the glass surface, in effect flattening out the droplet a bit compared to the rounder water droplet on the wax paper, which has less attraction to the surface (adhesion).
  • For Part 3, it may be helpful to bend one end of the paperclip up to use as a sort of handle to help with setting it down carefully onto the water. If students are familiar with the concept of density, they may think it floats because it is less dense than water. You can show that this is not the case by submerging the paper clip so that it sinks.
  • For Part 4, use a clear straw so that they can see the water rise up the straw. You could have students compare different width straws – water will reach a higher level in smaller diameter straws than in wider ones!
  • There are many possible extensions you can do for this activity! There is one listed for each of the four parts at the end of the student document. You could also do any/all of this activity again with different liquids (soapy water, salt water, isopropyl alcohol, acetone, cooking oils, etc.) or surfaces, conduct a thin layer chromatography demo/lab for capillary action, research real world applications/phenomena that depend on surface tension or capillary action, etc.
  • There are so many resources out there for studying water! Here are some good ones you could use to further teach about the properties of water:

For the Student

Prelab Questions

  • How many hydrogen atoms are in a water molecule?
  • How many oxygen atoms are in a water molecule?
  • What type of bond holds the hydrogen atoms to the oxygen atoms?
  • What makes water polar?


Investigate and explain several physical properties of water and related phenomena, including cohesion, adhesion, surface tension, and capillary action.


  • Penny
  • Dropper
  • Wax paper (2x2 inch)
  • Watch glass
  • Paperclip
  • Petri dish
  • Straw
  • Water


  • Always wear safety goggles when handling chemicals in the lab.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly before leaving the lab.
  • Follow teacher’s instructions for clean-up of materials.


Part 1: Cohesion

  • Predict how many drops of water will fit on the penny and record your prediction in the data table below.
  • Using the dropper, drop water onto the penny and count how many drops it holds.
  • Record the number of drops the penny was able to hold before it overflowed.
  • Record observations in your data table.

Part 2: Adhesion

  • Predict how a drop of water will look on the wax paper; draw it in your data table.
  • Predict how a drop of water will look on a watch glass; draw it in your data table.
  • Drop 5 drops of water onto each surface and record/draw your observations.

Part 3: Surface Tension

  • In a petri dish, add enough water to cover the bottom of the dish.
  • Carefully place the paperclip on top of the water.
  • Record your observations, reactions, or thoughts in your data table.

Part 4: Capillary Action

  • Using the same water and petri dish from the previous activity, carefully set a straw on top of the water in the petri dish.
  • Record your observations.
  • Place your finger over the top of the straw and pull it out of the petri dish.
  • Record your observations.


Part 1: Cohesion

Predicted Number of Drops

Actual Number of Drops


Part 2: Adhesion



Water Drops on Wax Paper

Water Drops on Watch Glass

Part 3: Surface Tension


Part 4: Capillary Action



  1. Was there a large difference between the number of drops you predicted would fit on the penny and the actual number of drops that fit on the penny?
  2. Based on this activity, describe what you think cohesion means.
  3. What was different about the shape of the water on the wax paper vs the shape of the water on the watch glass?
  4. Based on this activity, describe what you think adhesion means.
  5. The paperclip should be able to float because of surface tension. How would you explain surface tension to a friend?
  6. Explain how capillary action allows water to move up the straw.


  1. Using the terms cohesion and surface tension, explain how a water strider is able to walk on water.
  2. Using the terms adhesion and capillary action, explain how plants pull water up from the ground through their roots and stems to stay hydrated.


Part 1: Repeat the Part 1 procedures, but use water that has had some liquid dish soap mixed in. (Note: Gently stir in the soap to your water source so that it doesn’t get too bubbly.) Did you notice a difference in how many drops of water fit on your penny?

Part 2: Repeat the Part 2 procedures on various surfaces – plastic, stone, brick, metal, plastic wrap, paper, cardboard, etc. To which surface did the water show the most adhesion? The least?

Part 3: Repeat the Part 3 procedures, but use isopropyl alcohol instead of water. (You could try other liquids as well!) Did the paperclip behave the same way? What does this tell you about the strength of the surface tension of water compared to that of isopropyl alcohol?

Part 4: Capillary action can be seen in thin tubes, like the straw in Part 4, but also in other porous materials. Take a piece of paper towel and put one end of it in a cup of water, while holding the other end above the cup. What happens to the water? How does this relate to capillary action?