Foam Activity

Three Kinds of Hands-on Science

Setting the Context
This activity explores three different hands-on ways of approaching learning and science. It provides teachers with experiences which can be used as a starting point for discussions about inquiry and learning. At a Guided Activity Station, groups are given a worksheet to complete. At a Challenge Activity Station, groups are asked to build a tower of a certain minimum height out of foam. At an Inquiry Activity Station, groups explore soap foam and associated materials. Together, these activities can get your teachers to start to think about the different aspects and attributes of various hands-on approaches to learning.

2 1/2 hours minimum

Background and Rationale
For many years the Exploratorium has been creating inquiry learning experiences and environments for our visitors, students, and classroom teachers. Twenty-five years ago, the type of learning espoused by the museum and our programs was called hands-on science, because it promoted active physical investigations which emulated what real science experimentation looks and feels like. The central experience in all of these investigations was one of inquiry--observing, hypothesizing, testing, rethinking, questioning, searching, creating meaning and understanding through a personal process of learning.

Recently, hands-on learning has become something of a buzz-word in education circles. Under the moniker of "hands-on," countless kits and lesson plans have put materials into the hands of students, but many of them have proven just as restrictive and proscriptive in their use of and inquiry into the materials as were the textbooks that they set about to replace.

Because we realized that there was a continuum of interpretations of the term hands-on science, from tightly guided activities to open ended inquiry, we developed the foam activity to help both us and our teacher colleagues make finer distinctions between the different types of hands-on science learning on this continuum. The foam activity allows people to experience three different hands-on approaches to the same subject so that they can compare and contrast their immediate, direct experience and use that as a stimulus for analysis and discussion in a workshop setting. Through this discussion, the sketchy profile of inquiry which most of us have can begin to be filled in.

In devising this activity, we chose to work with soap foam for a number of reasons, including that it is a fun material to work with. The fact that foam is not part of anyone's curriculum is also important. Teachers at workshops are used to getting activities to take back to their classrooms. Using a topic that is not part of their curriculum helps to get across to them that the activity is designed for helping them analyze different teaching strategies and not for classroom use.

Introducing the Activity
The key to introducing this activity is to emphasize its purpose and design. Give teachers some of the background described above and tell them that the purpose of this activity is to let them experience three types of hands-on science. To prepare their thinking, let them know that after everybody has rotated through all three centers you will hold a discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of each type of activity and about where and why you might want to use each type.

Logistics of the Activity

Divide the group in half. One-half will go first to the Inquiry Station where they will spend 40-60 minutes; the other half will divide itself between the Challenge and Guided Stations, spending 20-30 minutes at each station. At the end of the hour, give teachers a short break before reversing groups: the teachers who had participated in Challenge and Guided activities move on to Inquiry, and the Inquiry group splits itself between the other two activities.

You need one facilitator for the Inquiry Station. It is useful to have one facilitator for each of the other stations but if necessary, one person can cover both.

Just before the end of each activity remind teachers about the need for clean-up before going on to their next station. We use 5 gallon buckets for cleaning up between groups. Teachers can dump all their foam into the buckets and wipe out their bowls with paper towels. If the buckets get too full of foam to hold any more, you can cut the foam by pouring a little vinegar into the buckets.

After the second hour, when everyone has worked at each station, "jigsaw" them into discussion groups of 8 to 12, mixing people from groups that experienced activities in different orders.

After spending 45 or so minutes in small discussion groups, you may want to
convene as a large group to share general observations. Each discussion group needs a facilitator.

(for 25 people)

  • about 15 bowls for beating foam (it may be useful to have more on hand)
  • 6 to 8 hand beaters, 1 per person for the guided activity. You may want additional beaters for the challenge and inquiry activities.
  • 8 to 10 electric beaters
  • 50 plastic coated plates - 11" or 12" size
  • 50 plastic coated plates - 6" dessert size
  • 8 pint bottles of Joy and/or Dawn detergent (it's nice to have some of both)
  • 4-6 cans of shaving cream
  • plastic covering for tables - or newspapers
  • 12, 1/4" dowels - cut to 5", 7", 9" and 12" and sharpened to a point (can be done in an electric pencil sharpener)
  • 4 yardsticks and 4 rulers
  • plastic spoons
  • tongue depressors
  • several magnifying glasses
  • 6 measuring spoons (teaspoons)
  • water containers (like pitchers) for each activity
  • 12 eight-oz paper cups
  • 2-4 qt. bottles of root beer
  • 1 dozen eggs
  • cream of tartar
  • 3 pints of vinegar for clean-up
  • binocular dissecting microscope (optional)
  • three 5-gallon buckets for clean-up

Spoons and tongue depressors are used to contour the foam, but you can ask people to use their hands. The root beer, shaving cream, eggs and cream of tartar are used at the inquiry center. In the text below, the above list is broken out into three materials lists for the three activity centers.

We've found that asking participants to bring in materials (like egg beaters and bowls) from home works well.

Guided Activity

This activity uses the attached self explanatory worksheet. Materials for each group are listed on the worksheet.

Facilitator's Directions
Tell the group that the activity directions are on the worksheet, including which materials each group should get from the materials table. Ask teachers to work in groups of two.

Give them the following helpful hints:

  • teachers need to turn the eggbeaters fairly rapidly, otherwise foam may not form.
  • when teachers put the dowels in the foam, they need to be pointed side down. Some will try to balance them on the flat ends.
  • ask people to read the instructions carefully. It is easy to miss things like the "4 inches high" instruction before question 3.

Remind people that they need to stop a little early to clean up for the next group. Dump all the foam into the five gallon buckets and wipe out all the bowls with paper towels.

Facilitation Hints
Because the instructions are all on the worksheet, the facilitation of this activity can be very lighthanded--but you need to make sure that people follow directions. Since the Guided Activity can be a little constraining, especially for people doing it as their third station, they tend not to read the instructions carefully. For example, we have found that they often miss the "4 inches high" instruction before question 3.

One of the issues that arises at this station concerns time. Sometimes one or more groups finish early and do not know what to do while other groups others are still working. Alternatively, some groups run out of time and are rushed or do not finish when clean-up time is called. In that case, you deal with the anxiety and feelings of failure that arise. These time issues are valid replication of what happens in classrooms with worksheets and should be part of the discussion.

People who have an inclination toward exploration may stray off task on this
activity. There are several options for dealing with this. You can try to keep people on task to replicate classroom work--joking with them about straying off-task often works to bring them back on task. This behavior is another point to bring to the discussion.

Challenge Activity

This activity asks people, in groups of two or three, to build a foam tower at least 12 inches high.

(per group of 2-3)

  • 1 11" plastic coated plate
  • 1 or 2 bowls
  • 1 hand mixers and/or 1 electric mixer
  • 1 yardstick
  • dish soap
  • water
  • optional: spoons or tongue depressors

Facilitator's Directions
The instructions for this activity are quite basic. Like most challenge activities, one needs only to set the challenge and the parameters.

Tell the teachers (or write on a chalkboard) that the challenge of this activity is to build a foam tower at least 12 inches high. The activity's parameters are that:

  • the tower must be completely contained on an 11" plastic plate and
  • there may not be any supports other than foam itself (we have had people put cups inside the foam pile as supports).

When a group has met the challenge, ask them to continue building the tower as high as possible. If a group is doing this station first, you can give the participants a starting point by telling them that 1 tsp. of detergent to 1 cup of water is the foam recipe for the Guided Investigation. Although this may not be the best recipe, it provides an idea of workable proportions for soap and water. They can use either hand or electric beaters or both at this station.

Facilitation Hints
The challenge in this activity is difficult but can be met. It often proves especially difficult for people who have not yet had experience with foam at the other stations. However, some people have found that their conclusions reached at other stations actually were misleading at this station. In general, you need dense strong foam at the base and lighter, fluffier foam as you go higher.

The facilitator at this station should be the judge of the tower height. To measure, hold a yardstick vertically on the table and sight across to the top of the tower. Keep telling teachers how much time they have left to meet the challenge. As they get closer to the time limit without meeting the challenge, frustration often grows. For groups that don't meet the challenge, there is a feeling of failure and "not being good at science." These are important points to bring to the discussion. Often, in groups who are doing this activity as the second or third activity, someone will notice that the old foam in the 5 gallon buckets from a prior group has dried out and become very light and fluffy. They will take some of this to use on the top layer of their tower. The facilitator needs to decide ahead of time if they want to allow this. Sometimes, participants will "cheat" by piling the foam onto other objects
despite knowing that they were instructed not to use supports. In this case, you don't have to force them to stop, but assure them that it really can be done without supports.

Participants can become quite competitive at this station. Challenges, and especially the instruction to go as high as you can after meeting the challenge, can easily lead to competition. With competition, everyone except the top group is a loser. The issues of competition are also important to bring to the discussion.

Cooperation is also possible at this station. In one session, the groups shared information with each other so that they could all meet the challenge. This is another important point to bring up in discussion.

With all of the possible pitfalls of challenges, it is important that the positive aspects are brought out in discussion. First, challenges can be very engaging for both adults and children. They provide a clear goal and give people the opportunity to experiment and find a way to meet that goal. Challenges can also push people to do things that they never would have suspected that they were capable of doing. In that way they can enhance the learner's confidence.

Inquiry Activity

At this station, participants are asked to work in groups of two or three to explore soap foam and to learn what they can about its physical properties, including what makes it strong. In addition to the materials that are available at the other stations, provide participants with shaving cream, root beer, eggs, cream of tartar and whipping cream. Set aside these materials aside from the others, so that at some point in the activity you can let people know that they are available for extensions. If possible, you can also include a binocular, dissecting microscope so that teachers can look more closely at the soap foam.

It is important to emphasize for teachers that this station provides them the
opportunity to experience the "first-phase" or "exploration phase" of the inquiry process--it does not represent all that there is to inquiry. People often believe that this exploring or playing-around stage (also sometimes referred to as the "messing about" stage) is all that there is to inquiry, leaving off the other important parts of hypothesizing, testing, analyzing, drawing conclusions, and developing theories that fit with existing understanding and knowledge. It is important not to allow this activity, which focuses much of its time on "playing," to contribute to the belief that inquiry is about play and not a process of making real and valuable discoveries and progress.
If people get beyond the exploratory phase, and do find a question that they can pursue in an intentional way within the time provided, encourage them to pursue those questions, even if it is in a direction that they are not sure will be fruitful.

(for 6 groups of 2-3)

  • 6 bowls for beating foam
  • 2-4 hand beaters
  • 4-6 electric beaters
  • plastic coated plates
  • 2-4 pints of Joy or Dawn detergent (preferably some of each)
  • 3-4 cans of shaving cream
  • covering for tables
  • one set of 1/4" dowels, as in the guided activity
  • several yardsticks and/or rulers
  • plastic spoons
  • tongue depressors
  • magnifying glasses and or/ dissecting scope and slides
  • measuring spoons
  • 8-oz paper cups
  • 2-4 qt. bottles of root beer
  • 1 dozen eggs

These materials should be enough for both rotations of participants.

Facilitator's Directions
Ask participants to take a couple of minutes to come up with all of the examples of foam that they can and write this list on the chalkboard. This process will engage the teachers' previous experience and connect their exploration to the outside world. After this, if this is not the group's first station, introduce people to the materials that they have to work with--then let them loose.

If this is their first station, you might need to help people find a way to get started by offering a "recipe" for foam, or by actually demonstrating how to make foam out of dish soap and water. You can also recommend that they look closely at the foam, add new ingredients to it, build with it, experiment with the other materials, etc. You may also want to ask the group to suggest two or three ways to explore some of the physical properties of foam, including its strength. This introduction is meant to give people without experiences from the other stations some ideas of how to get started and to show them that their ideas are valid--but be careful not to have the suggestions misinterpreted as instructions. The point is for people to lead themselves through a process of inquiry and discovery.

Facilitation Hints
The facilitator can constantly interact with the group, asking questions, suggesting things to try, and helping people figure out what to do next if they get stuck. Sometimes, groups that have already passed through the more structured stations have a hard time being creative and thinking of things to do during the free exploration. They may even quit before their time is up. This provides an important discussion point on how an expectation of structure can stifle creativity and interest.

Sometimes people ask if they can use materials that were not set out at the start. If people ask for items that are available, like food coloring or a microwave, you might want to provide them.

For the last five or ten minutes of this station, bring the group together to share their observations and discoveries. This process will illustrate for them the importance of the group interaction for building understanding about inquiry. During this time, emphasize again that this station is only the "first-phase" of the inquiry process and that it does not represent all that there is to inquiry.

Processing the Experience

The point of doing these foam activities is to provide first-hand experiences with three sorts of hands-on activities, and to generate thoughtful discussions about the differences noted and experienced among the three. The facilitation of the discussions and other processing of the experience is therefore the most critical element of the activity.

A good way to get people started is to ask the participants to write briefly about each station using the following questions as prompts.

  • How did you feel about working at each station?
  • What are the strengths of each approach?
  • What are the weaknesses and issues raised by each approach?

Discussion can follow this writing period, or you can start the discussions right after the end of the last activity.

Teachers should meet in groups of no more than 12 people plus a facilitator. Jigsaw the groups mixing people who experienced the activities in different orders and who worked in different groups.

An easy way to jigsaw the groups is to approach each of the Guided Activity groups, while they are still doing their activity, and ask them to count off 1-2-3 (that's if you are planning to have 3 discussion groups, if you are planning on four have them count off 1-2-3-4). Ask them to remember their number because that will be their discussion group which will meet at the end of all the activities. This is only one possibility--there are other ways to distribute people into discussion groups that you may find more useful.

Discussion Group Prompts

Your choice of discussion prompts depends on the make-up of your group and what you are trying to emphasize with this activity. The following discussion prompts have proven useful in stimulating productive dialogue:

  • How did it feel to work in each area--what was your personal reaction?
  • What kinds of questions came up in the three areas? How did they differ?
  • How does the timing or order affect the experience?
  • What happens if you can't meet the challenge? What happens to the science- shy kid (or adult)? What happens if the challenge becomes a competition? What are the positive aspects of challenges and competitions?
  • When would you use these different approaches in the classroom?
  • What were the advantages and disadvantages of each approach?

Facilitation of discussions and some typical things that come up:

·  How did it feel to work in each area--what was your personal reaction?

People will have different reactions to each area. Some will love the freedom of the inquiry station. Others will feel insecure there, not knowing what to do or what the objective is. Some will like the guidance provided by the worksheet. Others will find it limiting. Some love a challenge. Others hate the pressure of the challenge. Discussion often turns to how to appeal to kids with different learning styles. Many teachers will say things like Now I know how my students feel when I make them do ___.

·  What kinds of questions came up in the three areas? How did they differ?

Some people find they have more questions in one activity or another, or that the types of questions they have are different in different activities. For instance, the challenge or the inquiry activity might bring up questions like "I wonder what would happen if...?" While the guided activity might bring up questions like "I wonder if this is why ____ happens?" Looking at the kinds of questions that came up can be a good lead into a discussion about when you would want to employ one or another of the activity strategies.

·  How does the timing or order affect the experience?

Order makes a difference for many people. Sometimes, people who start with the more structured activities have a hard time in the inquiry station. Their curiosity and creativity seems to be stifled.

Sometimes this question turns to "Which order is the right order to teach in?"
This is a tricky one. Examining why people believe one order is better than
another helps them examine their teaching beliefs. However, there is no one
best order and it's good to try to incorporate this discussion into the questions of strengths and weaknesses of each method and under what circumstances it is most appropriate to use each.

·  What were the advantages and disadvantages of each approach?
You might want to elicit or contribute the following specific points:

Challenge Activity

  • Challenges and competitions can be very engaging for many students.
  • Challenges can also encourage people to attempt things and solve problems that they otherwise would think they could not do.
  • Challenges can create unhealthy anxiety.
  • Not meeting the challenge can make people feel like failures and like they are not capable of doing science.
  • Competitions can make everyone but the winner feel like a failure. They discourage sharing of information and ideas.

Guided Activity

  • If you want to get to a very particular conclusion or illustrate a particular fact, this is a more certain way to get there.
  • Can be useful for building a particular skill that may be applied to another situation later (in this instance, learning how to make "good" foam in a short time).
  • It has a clear beginning and closure. What you are supposed to do is clear.
  • Worksheets can be very boring for some people.


  • The question is not the learner's question and the experimental design is not the learner's design and may not make sense to the learner.
  • The instructions never quite cover all of the variables. You may get
    misleading results.
  • The structure can be limiting, actually discouraging further action or
  • Sometimes, people will rebel and subvert the worksheet. Sometimes
    instructions are not fully read or followed.


  • People pursue their own questions. They have more control over their work.
  • People invent their own paths of investigation.
  • People share information and discoveries, learning from each others' work.
  • People have a greater opportunity to develop the skills of raising questions
    and designing investigations here.
  • The outcome is not necessarily pre-determined.
  • Requires more facilitation than the other activities.
  • The facilitator has less control over what is learned. Important ideas can be
  • Inquiry takes more time. After the "messing about" stage, additional time is
    needed for more purposeful investigation.
  • Not having specific instructions creates anxiety for some people.
  • What is the learning going on in the "messing about" period, before focusing on a particular inquiry question?
    -Exploring pertinent variables (e.g., getting a feel for the materials) is an important aspect of this period.
    -The sharing of observations and discoveries at the end of the inquiry session helps people recognize the learning going on here.


Guided Activity Worksheet

Foam is a material made up of gas bubbles separated from one another by a liquid film. Foam has physical properties which can serve as a model for may other phenomena. It also serves as a vehicle for learning about the complexities of surface area. In the following investigation, you will explore some of the physical properties of foam.

(for each group)

  • Two 6" desert size plastic coated plates
  • 2 bowls
  • 1 teaspoon
  • 1 cup (about 8 oz.)
  • 1 or preferably 2 hand mixers
  • One set of pointed dowels
  • 1 ruler
  • 1 magnifying glass
  • Optional: spoons or tongue depressors

Put 1 tsp. of Joy or Dawn detergent and 1 cup (8 oz.) of water in each of two bowls. Beat each mixture with an eggbeater counting the strokes.
    Bowl A   200 strokes
    Bowl B   600 strokes

1) Which foam has bigger bubbles, A or B?

On the small plastic plates, build piles of foam as high as you can.
2) How high a pile can you build with A?
    How high a pile can you build with B?

On small plastic plates, build mounds of foam 4 inches high; one with foam A and one with foam B. Try to make a dowel stand vertically in the foam, with the pointed end of the dowel down.
3) Which is the longest dowel that will stand in foam A?
    Which is the longest dowel that will stand in foam B?

4) Which foam is the strongest, A or B?

5) In the experiments above, what other differences did you notice between foam A and B?