"How does it work?": Using toys to inspire wonder and develop critical thinking skills in fluids mechanics

Document Type

Conference Proceeding


Mechanical Engineering

Conference Title

ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Conference Proceedings


Louisville, KY

Date of Presentation



Many students have owned or seen wave-maker toys, in which two immiscible fluids in a closed container can be tilted to generate waves. These types of inexpensive and readily available toys can offer benefits in support of technical education in addition to their primary function as tools for fun and entertainment. They can help inspire a sense of wonder about fluid behavior (generally expressed as: "Hey, that's pretty cool!"). However, when used as part of a class, these toys can also help students develop their observation and critical thinking skills by considering questions such as "How does it work?" and "Why does it behave the way it does?" Answering these questions requires students to examine the fluid materials in the toys very closely and to observe a familiar object in a potentially new and unfamiliar way. In this paper, we describe several such toys that can be used to enhance student learning in Fluid Mechanics courses. Several of these toys demonstrate fundamental properties including density and viscosity. The toys can also be used to demonstrate more complex fluid behavior including drop formation and coalescence, effects of boundary shear stress, and Karman vortices. Furthermore, the toys can be used a interesting displays for outreach and informal science education. The paper includes suggestions on how the toys can be incorporated into a class for demonstrations, group exercises, or assignments and includes discussion of some formative assessment of student learning. References to the toys and other relevant web sites are provided to assist educators who are interested in using such tools to enhance student learning. © American Society for Engineering Education, 2010.



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