Introduction: Water Works

Working at an academic based after school program, we do a lot of STEAM projects with our kids.

This is a compilation of a few projects we've done in the past and a couple I've found or come up with over the past few months, trying to think of ways we can engage and teach our kids when we are able to reopen. These are just a handful of my favorite STEAM projects using water


These lists are the bare minimum supplies necessary to complete each activity, see the individual steps for more variations and supplies needed for those extra ideas.

Rainbow Paper Towel

  • Paper towel
  • Markers
  • Tub of water

Rainy Day Painting

  • Watercolor pencils or paint
  • Paper (preferably watercolor or multimedia paper)
  • Brushes

Boat Races

  • Water
  • Tub large enough to float your boats
  • Paper or tin foil

Oil Spill

  • Tub of water
  • Cooking oil
  • Paper towel
  • Spoons

Liquid stacking

  • Water
  • Oil
  • Milk
  • Rubbing alcohol

Step 1: Rainbow Paper Towel

You will need

  • Paper towel
  • Shallow container of water, long enough to dip your full paper towel in
  • Water based markers-Crayola works well

How to: Rainbows

  1. Have kids color the bottom ~inch of their paper towels with rainbow colors, running the length of the bottom of the paper towel.
  2. Once colored have students dip, just the bottom of, their paper towel in the water tub.
  3. Watch as the color runs up the paper towel with the water and as some of the marker dye seeps out and swirls in the water around the paper towel.
  4. Have students remove paper towel from water and hang to dry.


  1. Instead of rainbow colors across the bottom have students put dots all over the paper towel, notice how they bleed differently and spread across the paper towel.
  2. Try with different paper towel brands, compare how the colors bleed and how far up the paper towel they go.
  3. Try with different types of markers

Our experience:

This only works with water based markers, sharpies and other alcohol based markers will not work. This does create a cool discussion point if you have some other kinds of markers to discuss why it works with some and not others. The best results I got were with regular, crayola, washable markers and some watercolor markers I had around the house. I would love to compare different brands of paper towel to see if the markers bleed differently depending on the absorption and design of the towel. I did not have great luck with color mixing but you may figure out a way that works for you. I did have some fun "drawing" with the markers by dotting the paper towel at different levels and watching it bleed as the water crept up. I recommend challenging your students to create art this way.

Discussion questions/Things to think about

  • Did one color work better than others?
  • Did one not work at all?
  • Did brand matter?
  • What brands worked better and what did the paper towel look like? (smooth, bumpy, patterned...)
  • Why did some markers work while others didn't move at all?
  • Discuss different ink types and where they work best. Ex. Alcohol markers won't bleed in water

Step 2: Rainy Day Painting

You will need

  • Watercolor pencils or paints
  • Water
  • Paper-Ideally watercolor paper but most should work with regular printer paper

Pick a few from below

  • Salt
  • Oil-I used canola oil
  • Crayon
  • Brushes
  • Glue-bottled glue works best
  • Eye dropper
  • Ice
  • Baking soda
  • Vinegar
  • food coloring

How to/Variations:

Have students experiment with watercolor paints and how different substances can change them.

  • Before starting if your students tend to be messier think about doing these projects outside or on a pan with edges to contain the mess.
  • For rainy day painting, use watercolor pencils to draw on the paper then place outside before or during a nice rain to let the rain finish the painting. For an extra challenge try making a color wheel with only primary colors, letting the rain mix them.
  • Draw a thin line of glue on paper and pour salt on top, paint the salt by dabbing your paint-coated brush lightly on the salt, try with sugar too.
  • Make watercolor ice, pour some water into an ice tray and add some watercolor paint to each cube (works best with liquid watercolor paint) add popsicle sticks and freeze...use to paint on a hot day.
  • Fill a small bin with ice cubes and use paint brushes to paint the ice cubes.
  • Paint a piece of paper with water-heavy paint and use an eye dropper to drop small amounts of oil onto the paper, let dry without moving too much.
  • Draw on your paper with some liquid glue or a white crayon, let dry, then paint over them.
  • Make your own baking soda paint
    • In an ice tray, add some baking soda (no more than half full) and a couple drops of food coloring to each cube segment, stir water into each until baking soda is dissolved.
    • Let dry in the freezer for 3-4 hours.
    • Paint like regular watercolor then, using an eye dropper or brush, drop vinegar onto your painting before letting dry, or paint with vinegar instead of water.

Our experience:

Unfortunately I did not have a good rainy day to get examples of the rainy day watercolor but...I love the look of the salt watercolor, I think it looks like a snow cone on paper, the sugar didn't work as well for me but I think my glue was a little heavy. The salt painting is super easy and really cool, you could also use it as a winter project to make snowflakes. The wet watercolor on oil didn't work as well as I'd hoped and gave me more of a greasy look but I'd love to hear if anyone got it to work and how. The oil on wet watercolor worked a little better, it looks a little splotchy and funky, working best with flicking the oil on instead of dotting with a brush. I did not wait for the glue to fully dry before painting so the paint smeared, but I think it still turned out pretty cool. White crayon is always fun and easy to do, it does show up best with darker colors and a little lighter-water paint. I love the baking soda paint! It worked best on watercolor paper, the multimedia didn't quite get the vinegar effect but it is still fun if you just want to be able to make your own watercolor paints at home. Painting directly with vinegar was a little temperamental for me, you have to get a lot of vinegar on your paint palette for it to work. Dotting the water-painted area with vinegar worked a lot better for me with cool, almost tie dye effects. I also found it gave a fun effect to paint one layer painting with vinegar then painting over it with water.

Discussion/Things to think about:

  • Did the rain move your paint how you wanted it to?
  • Can you control where your paint goes with the rain?
  • Which worked better, salt or sugar? Why?
  • What happened when you painted over glue or crayon? Why do you think that happened?
  • Did the colors look different between variations?
  • What happened when you added vinegar to your baking soda paint paintings?
  • Why did the baking soda and vinegar paint react how it did?
  • What else could you try with watercolors?

Step 3: Boat Races

What you need

  • Water
  • Large Container
  • Tin foil
  • Cardboard
  • Rubber band
  • Popsicle sticks
  • Straws
  • Tape
  • Glue
  • Paper

How to:

  1. Fill the container with water.
  2. Spread all supplies on a table and have kids create a boat.
  3. Have kids take turns floating their boats!


Tin foil boats- Have kids experiment with surface area, thickness of floor and walls or even separate compartments. For boats that float, challenge kids to see what hold the most pennies before sinking.

Cardboard- Make paddle boats by adding a rubber band. To make a paddle boat start with a cardboard rectangle, cut a small square out the middle of one of the shorter edges. Stretch a rubber band across the original rectangle. Place the square in the cut out, inside the rubber band. Spin the square, causing the rubber band to wrap around it. Place your boat in the water and release the square to see it go. Have kids mess with the shape of their boats and paddle size to find which boats will go the farthest with the same number of paddle turns.

Popsicle sticks- Try different ways to arrange the Popsicle sticks to make different rafts, try adding sails with paper or tissue paper.

Paper boats- Try this simple origami boat or check out some origami books from your local library and try some more intricate ones. Try making a paper boat that will float better than the other materials. Try different types of paper...card stock, newspaper, magazine page, wax paper...

Try shaping the materials like some boats you have seen, a sailboat, a barge, a yacht...challenge your students to come up with something unique.

Our experience:

Bigger is not always better and boats with different compartments are interesting creations. For the cardboard paddle boat you may need to cut some extra "paddles" or use a cardboard that doesn't fall apart as easily, my paddle got waterlogged and flimsy pretty quick. I couldn't find any popsicle sticks to show an example but in the past we have rubber banded, glued and taped popsicle sticks in different configurations with varied success rates, the best being a flat pane of glued popsicle sticks. Printer paper sinks fast, no further comment.

Discussion/Things to think about:

  • How did surface area effect your boats?
  • Did material make a difference?
  • Which boat floated the longest?
  • Held the most weight?
  • Sank fastest?
  • Did any boats surprise you?
  • How far could the farthest paddle boat go?
  • What works best for a sail?

Step 4: Oil Spill Clean Up

You will need

  • Water in a large container
  • Oil-I used canola
  • Food coloring (Optional)

Pick a few from below

  • Feathers
  • Spoon
  • Cotton balls
  • Smaller containers
  • Dish soap
  • Sponges
  • Towels
  • Paper towels
  • Ice cubes
  • Sand
  • Anything else your kids think will work to clean up oil
  • Baster/Eye dropper/syringe

How to:

If you would like to make more of a lesson of this activity, have a conversation about oil spills beforehand. Discuss the causes and how it effects the environment then talk about how hard they are to clean. Show some ways they are contained and cleaned then have kids brainstorm some solutions they think might work. While brainstorming introduce the activity and have the kids think up some ways to clean up on a small scale or how you could convert their large scale clean up ideas to a small scale. Compile a list and pick some methods from it for them to try with the activity.

  1. Fill the tub about half way with water and gather all tools for cleaning.
  2. Measure about a tablespoon of oil, you may want to add some food coloring to help see the oil better once added-be aware some food colorings will not mix well with the oil and will instead disperse throughout the water when the oil is added.
  3. Pour the oil in and have students remove as much oil as they can.

Our experience:

After the oil was added my brother first dropped an ice cube in to see what would happen, after not much happened he tried scooping the largest oil blob out with a spoon. Next he tried to corral the oil with a few ice cubes. When that didn't work he tried the spoon again then added some sand to try and absorb some of the oil. He eventually built a small sand dam in one corner and alternated trying to scoop the oil with a spoon and trying to absorb the oil with Q-tips and cotton balls. Ultimately he asked me to add a little more oil with some food coloring, that didn't work too well and he gave up soon after, declaring his clean up efforts a failure.


  • Dip feathers or fabric into the oil spill and have kids try to clean them.
  • To simulate wind, tides and other elements try blowing across the top of the tub to spread the oil, underwater with a straw, or sprinkle water over the pan.

Discussion/Things to think about:

  • Which tools worked best to clean up the oil?
  • Why is it so hard to clean up?
  • What might work better?
  • Relate what you learned here with how people clean up ocean oil spills
  • How could we help animals that get caught in oil spills?

Step 5: Stacking Liquids

What you need-

  • Thin glass or cylinder
  • Dropper
  • Food coloring(optional)
  • Glass stir stick(optional)

Select a few

  • Water
  • Oil
  • Isopropyl Alcohol
  • Dish soap
  • Corn syrup
  • Milk
  • Honey
  • Baby Oil
  • Small cube of wood
  • Small ball of metal
  • Small ball of plastic
  • Marble
  • Coins
  • Bouncy Ball

How to:

  1. Gather desired substances. Each station will need a container of each liquid (around 1/2c), an eye dropper (ideally one for each liquid), and a tall thin glass or cylinder
  2. Have students use the dropper and stir stick to stack the liquids in the tall glass. It is easier to stack the liquids if you run the liquid down the inside of the glass or the stir stick, instead of straight on top of the liquid layer below.

How it went:

We used Corn Syrup, Dish Soap, Milk, Water, and Soybean Oil. We started out already knowing the densities, therefor knowing the order to pour them into the cup. We attempted to use a stir stick to pour our liquids into the glass to prevent breaking the surface tension of the layer below. This did not always work, I think it would have worked better with a longer stir stick. That being said the liquids with more varied densities did stay separate. Our closer density liquids kind of tried to occupy the same layer, leading to a real funky looking layer of milk, dish soap and water. The three liquids did not actually mix, they just floated around each other in one layer, similar to a thin lava lamp. For the last layer we finally gave up on the stir stick and tilted the glass slightly to pour the oil down the side. All in all not the intended result, but still a cool final look.


  • Have students guess what the liquids are before starting.
  • Have students stack the liquids "blind" by not discussing the liquids at all.
  • Dye the liquids with food coloring to make stacking a little more fun.
  • Have a race to see which team can stack all the liquids the fastest.
  • Incorporate solid items such as small balls, coins or pieces of wood.

Discussion/Things to think about:

  • How did you figure out which liquids to stack?
  • Could you tell density just by looking at them?
  • Was one liquid easier to tell where it would stack?
  • Was one harder?
  • What does density tell us about a substance?
  • How did surface tension effect this experiment?

Density Cheat Sheet

  • Honey-1.42
  • Maple Syrup-1.37
  • Corn Syrup-1.33
  • Dish Soap-1.06
  • Milk-1.03
  • Apple Cider Vinegar-1.01
  • Water-1
  • Soybean Oil-0.917
  • Olive Oil-0.92
  • Baby Oil-0.83
  • Isopropyl Alcohol-0.79
Back to Basics Contest

Runner Up in the
Back to Basics Contest