Measuring density

Students build a device to measure density.

As described in this post, I like to have students build “instruments” to measure the most oceanographic properties (temperature, salinity and density). I find that they appreciate oceanographic data much more once they have first-hand experience with how difficult it is to design instruments and make sense of the readings.

Students designing a hydrometer.

Measuring (relative) density is by no means easy. There are a lot of conceptual things to understand when developing hydrometers – one question that comes up every time is what to mark. The first idea tends be to mark displacement on the cup – either a zero-mark without the hydrometer in the cup and then the water level once the hydrometer is floating in the water, or the level of the bottom of the hydrometer. Which makes it fairly hard to measure other samples than the ones the instrument was initially calibrated with.

The student group working on the task was faced with – and overcame – many difficulties. The straw was top-heavy, so in order to float more or less vertically, it had to be cut down. They had four different test solutions, but they did not know the densities of those solutions, only their salinities, hence they developed their own density scale relative to which they measured the density of their solution. Pretty ingenious!