EarthLabs for Educators > Hurricanes > Lab 5: All About Air Pressure

This page first made public: Aug 12, 2008

Lab 5: All About Air Pressure

The lab activity described here was created by John McDaris of SERC for the EarthLabs project.

Summary and Learning Objectives

Students select a storm from the HURDAT database and create its track in the easy-to-use online tool, Google Maps. The visualization they produce details the location and intensity of their storm through time. Afterwards, students access an online mapping tool to examine the locations and life cycles of hundreds of Atlantic storms.

After completing this investigation, students will be able to:

  • Students will conduct simple lab experiments to gain first-hand experience with the effects of air pressure.
  • Students will work effectively in groups to conduct experiments and analyze the results.
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Context for Use

This lab has students working in groups to conduct simple laboratory experiments. It was designed for high school Earth Science students but is also applicable to introductory level students in college Geoscience courses. One 50-60 minute class period is required for the activity. There are six stations that the groups will rotate between so, depending on your class length, each station should take between 8 and 10 minutes. The lab requires common lab equipment like Bunsen burners and having it set up in a space designed for laboratory work is recommended.

Activity Overview and Teaching Materials

This lab requires a fair amount of pre-class setup. You will need to put together the different exercises at different stations. There are 6 stations in the lab so you will need to divide your class into 6 teams. (Ideally of 3-5 students each, but class size may not allow it.) The teams will move from station to station, completing the exercises cooperatively as they go.

There are printable Station Cards (Acrobat (PDF) 74kB Sep19 07) of materials and instructions that you can place at each station to help lead students through the exercises. The directions are also on the activity sheet (Acrobat (PDF) 175kB Sep27 07) that you will hand out at the beginning of the lab. There is also a

Grading Sheet

This file is only accessible to verified educators. If you would like access to this file, please enter your email address below. If you are new to the site, you will be asked to complete a short request form. If you have already been verified by the EarthLabs project, you will be taken directly to the file download page.

to help you in assessing student performance on the lab.

(The activity sheet is also available in a word processing format (Microsoft Word 503kB Sep27 07).)

Station 1: Collapsing pop can

Station Card 1 (Acrobat (PDF) 66kB Sep18 07)


  • Aluminum pop can
  • Bunsen burner or small propane torch and striker
  • Claw holder (the kind that can be attached to ring stands)
  • Bucket of cold water
  • Oven mitt (or equivalent) and safety glasses
  • Metric rulers


  1. Measure the height and diameter of the can. Make a note of this information on the activity sheet.
  2. Put a small amount of water in the bottom of the can. Just enough to cover the bottom.
  3. Wearing goggles and an oven mitt, hold the can in the claw over the heat source. Do so until there is a good chimney of steam coming out the opening in the can. This might take a couple of minutes.
  4. Quickly invert the can into the bucket of cold water and watch the results.
  5. Complete the questions on the activity sheet.

Station 2: Balloon in a Bell Jar

Station Card 2 (Acrobat (PDF) 66kB Sep18 07)


  • Bell jar
  • Vacuum pump
  • 2 Small balloons, partially inflated to the same size.
  • Masking tape


  1. Tape one of the balloons to the top inside of the bell jar. Leave the other on the outside for comparison. (This step won't be necessary for subsequent groups.)
  2. Connect the vacuum pump and evacuate some air out of the bell jar.
  3. Complete questions on activity sheet.
  4. Release the vacuum so that the apparatus is ready for the next group.

Station 3: Ruler and Newspaper

Station Card 3 (Acrobat (PDF) 66kB Sep19 07)


  • Sheets of newspaper
  • Wooden rulers or flat pieces of wood (that you don't mind breaking!)


  1. Part A
  2. Place the ruler on a bench top with about a quarter of its length hanging over the edge.
  3. Make sure the area around you is clear of people, then give the overhanging piece a quick "karate chop" with your hand.
  4. Retrieve the ruler and replace it in the same position on the bench.
    Part B
  5. Lay one full sheet of newspaper over the part of the ruler that is on the bench.
  6. Repeat your chop to the overhanging part of the ruler.
  7. Record your observations and answer the questions on the activity sheet.

Station 4: Egg in a Bottle

Station Card 4 (Acrobat (PDF) 66kB Sep18 07)


  • Hard boiled eggs (with shells removed).
  • A bottle or flask with an opening that is just small enough to prevent the egg from entering the bottle. Each group should have their own bottle as one of the students will have to put it to their mouth.
  • Matches


  1. Part A
  2. Drop a burning match into the bottom of the bottle.
  3. After a few seconds, place the egg onto the mouth of the bottle.
  4. Compete the relevant areas on the activity sheet.Part B
  5. Now that the egg is in the bottle, turn the bottle upside down so that the egg is resting in the neck of the bottle.
  6. Tip back your head, place your mouth over the bottle opening and blow vigorously into the bottle.
  7. Quickly remove your lips from the bottle hold it over the bench.
  8. Complete this section of the activity sheet.
  9. Wash the bottle with soap and hot water so that it's ready for the next class.

Station 5: Soda Bottle and Ping Pong Ball

Based on work by Patrick Cooney of Millersville University
Station Card 5 (Acrobat (PDF) 70kB Sep18 07)


  • Soda bottle (Sobe 20oz bottles work well)
  • 1 Ping pong ball
  • Graduated cylinder
  • Metric ruler
  • Beaker to collect water
  • A barometer (reading in kPa)


Image of the final state of Station 5. The ping pong ball is being held in place by the balanced forces inside and outside the bottle. Image by John McDaris
  1. Obtain a reading of atmospheric pressure from the barometer at the station. Record this on the activity sheet.
  2. Fill the bottle all the way to the top with water.
  3. Push the ping pong ball onto the top to squeeze out a small amount of water.
  4. Now, pour off about one third of the water in the bottle into the graduated cylinder and record this amount as V0 (pronounced "vee sub zero") on the activity sheet.
  5. Hold the ping pong ball on top of the bottle and invert it over the beaker. Hold the ball loosely against the opening so that some water is allowed to leak out into the beaker. Don't jiggle or rotate the ball during this process.
  6. Eventually, enough water will leak out that the pressure on both sides of the ball will be the same and you can take your hand away and the ball will stay. Add the water that leaked out to the graduated cylinder and record this total amount as V1 (pronounced "vee sub one") on the activity sheet.
  7. Measure the distance from the mouth of the bottle to the top of the water it encloses and record this distance as D on the activity sheet.
  8. Complete the calculations called for on your activity sheet to determine the atmospheric pressure in your classroom. Compare your calculated value to the reading you took off the barometer and answer the questions on the activity sheet.

Station 6: News Article Review

Station Card 6 (Acrobat (PDF) 66kB Sep18 07)


Copies of these news articles:


  1. Everyone in the group should pick an article to read. Everyone should take a different one unless there are more group members than articles.
  2. Spend the first few minutes reading your article and then write a paragraph summary (on your activity sheet) of what the main points of the article were and what you learned from it.
  3. When everyone is finished, each person should spend 1 minute telling the rest of the group about the article and fielding any questions their group-mates might have about the material.
  4. Keep an eye on the time so that everyone gets a chance to share what they learned!
  5. In your own words, write a couple of sentences based on the summary that your group-mates give of their articles.
  6. Leave the articles for the other groups to use when you move on to your next lab station.

Printable Materials

  • Activity Sheet (PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 175kB Sep27 07) and Word (Microsoft Word 503kB Sep27 07))
  • Answer Sheet

    This file is only accessible to verified educators. If you would like access to this file, please enter your email address below. If you are new to the site, you will be asked to complete a short request form. If you have already been verified by the EarthLabs project, you will be taken directly to the file download page.

  • All Station Cards (Acrobat (PDF) 74kB Sep19 07)
  • Station 1 Card (Acrobat (PDF) 66kB Sep18 07)
  • Station 2 Card (Acrobat (PDF) 66kB Sep18 07)
  • Station 3 Card (Acrobat (PDF) 66kB Sep19 07)
  • Station 4 Card (Acrobat (PDF) 66kB Sep18 07)
  • Station 5 Card (Acrobat (PDF) 70kB Sep18 07)
  • Station 6 Card (Acrobat (PDF) 66kB Sep18 07)
  • Zip File ( 1.3MB Jan16 08) of all Printable Materials

Teaching Notes and Tips

The instructor will need to be moving around the room troubleshooting issues with equipment, although most of the materials in this lab are very simple. The instructor should also be aware of how the groups are working together.

Below you will find specific notes or suggestions for each of the stations in this lab.

Station 1

If you have the resources, you can set up 2 or 3 Bunsen burners or torches at this station so that every student on each team has the opportunity to do the activity themselves.
Be sure to talk to the students about safety regarding the burners and torches and that they wear the hand and eye protection during the activity.
This can also be done with a hot plate if the other heat sources aren't possible in your classroom.
You'll need to provide your students with the altitude at your location or allow them to look it up for themselves so that they can do the calculations.

Station 2

If your school does not have a bell jar and vacuum pump, you can substitute the following activity which uses an empty wine bottle and a hand pump available for less than $20.

Alternate Activity for Station 2: Wine Bottle and a Balloon (Acrobat (PDF) 55kB Sep27 07)
Alternate Station Card for Station 2 (Acrobat (PDF) 56kB Sep18 07)

Station 3

Flying rulers do pose a safety hazard! Make sure that this activity is taking place in such a way as to minimize its impact on the rest of the class.
If you have enough rulers or pieces of wood, more than one student on each team can do this activity in succession.

Station 4

Be sure that each group has their own bottle, as one of the students will have to put it to their mouth.
You'll probably want to have one hard boiled egg per group with extras just in case.

Station 5

The amount of water that leaks out is small and it doesn't take long to reach the point where the internal pressure and the external pressure are balanced. It should be possible for most or all of the team members to do this activity themselves in the time allotted.
Remind your students not to let bubbles of air into the bottle when they are letting the water leak out. This will introduce an error into their calculations.

Station 6

If you have large group sizes, you may need to provide more than one copy of each article so that everyone has one to read.


Collect the activity sheets and grade on effort and accuracy. You may also wish to have a part of the grade for the lab (10-15% or so) be based on how well the teams work together. If you choose this route, be sure to check out the Starting Point module on Cooperative Learning for pointers.

State and National Science Teaching Standards

California Science Teaching Standards met by this activity

Investigation and Experimentation Standards

1. Scientific progress is made by asking meaningful questions and conducting careful investigations. As a basis for understanding this concept and addressing the content in the other four strands, students should develop their own questions and perform investigations. Students will:
c. Identify possible reasons for inconsistent results, such as sources of error or uncontrolled conditions.
d. Formulate explanations by using logic and evidence.

Applicable Massachusetts Science and Technology Standards (PDF - 1.3 Mb)

Earth and Space Science - Scientific Inquiry Skills Standards

SIS2. Design and conduct scientific investigations.
  • Properly use instruments, equipment, and materials (e.g., scales, probeware, meter sticks, microscopes, computers) including set-up, calibration (if required), technique, maintenance, and storage.
  • Follow safety guidelines.
SIS3. Analyze and interpret results of scientific investigations.
  • Use mathematical operations to analyze and interpret data results.
  • Assess the reliability of data and identify reasons for inconsistent results, such as sources of error or uncontrolled conditions.
  • Use results of an experiment to develop a conclusion to an investigation that addresses the initial questions and supports or refutes the stated hypothesis.
  • State questions raised by an experiment that may require further investigation.

Earth and Space Science - Mathematical Skills

  • Construct and use tables and graphs to interpret data sets.
  • Solve simple algebraic expressions.
  • Measure with accuracy and precision (e.g., length, volume, mass, temperature, time)
  • Convert within a unit (e.g., centimeters to meters).
  • Use scientific notation, where appropriate.
  • Use appropriate metric/standard international (SI) units of measurement for mass (kg); length (m); time (s); force (N); speed (m/s); acceleration (m/s2); and frequency (Hz).
  • Use the Celsius and Kelvin scales.

Applicable New York Core Curricula

STANDARD 1 - Analysis, Inquiry, and Design
Students will use mathematical analysis, scientific inquiry, and engineering design, as appropriate, to pose questions, seek answers, and develop solutions.
Mathematical Analysis - Key Idea 3: Critical thinking skills are used in the solution of mathematical problems.
Scientific Inquiry - Key Idea 3: The observations made while testing proposed explanations, when analyzed using conventional and invented methods, provide new insights into phenomena.

Applicable Earth and Environmental Science Standards

COMPETENCY GOAL 1: The learner will develop abilities necessary to do and understand scientific inquiry in the earth and environmental sciences.

1.02 Design and conduct scientific investigations to answer questions related to earth and environmental science.
  • Collect and record data.
  • Analyze and interpret data.
1.04 Apply safety procedures in the laboratory and in field studies.
  • Safely manipulate materials and equipment needed for scientific investigations.

Applicable Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS)

112.49. Geology, Meteorology, and Oceanography.

(c) Knowledge and skills:
(2) Scientific processes. The student uses scientific methods during field and laboratory investigations. The student is expected to:
(B) collect data and make measurements with precision;
(C) organize, analyze, evaluate, make inferences, and predict trends from data;

Applicable National Science Education Standards (SRI)

Science as Inquiry (12ASI)

Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry

12ASI1.2 Design and conduct scientific investigations. Designing and conducting a scientific investigation requires introduction to the major concepts in the area being investigated, proper equipment, safety precautions, assistance with methodological problems, recommendations for use of technologies, clarification of ideas that guide the inquiry, and scientific knowledge obtained from sources other than the actual investigation. The investigation may also require student clarification of the question, method, controls, and variables; student organization and display of data; student revision of methods and explanations; and a public presentation of the results with a critical response from peers. Regardless of the scientific investigation performed, students must use evidence, apply logic, and construct an argument for their proposed explanations.

12ASI1.3 Use technology and mathematics to improve investigations and communications. A variety of technologies, such as hand tools, measuring instruments, and calculators, should be an integral component of scientific investigations. The use of computers for the collection, analysis, and display of data is also a part of this standard. Mathematics plays an essential role in all aspects of an inquiry. For example, measurement is used for posing questions, formulas are used for developing explanations, and charts and graphs are used for communicating results.

Additional Resources

Background Information

Understanding air pressure: This article from USA Today gives a very nice overview of what is known about air pressure. There are also many links to further information on a variety of details. The article provides a good baseline of information that will be useful for instructors to have read.

Pedagogic Considerations

If you are unfamiliar with having students working in groups, take a look at the Starting Point website on Cooperative Learning.

Content Extension

Atmospheric Pressure and Wind Visualizations: These visualizations can help you make the connection between these hands-on activities and global phenomena that involve wind and atmospheric pressure.