Let It Flow! Outrunning Lava and Other Lessons

How fast do honey, cooking oil, and water flow on an elevated cookie sheet? Donna Budynas’ first distance learning lab, to test viscosity, or the measure of how liquid flows, was rather tame. But then, she kicked it up a notch! She asked her sixth grade science class to outrun lava – Indiana Jones-style. Extra credit was offered for wearing explorer gear and family involvement was encouraged.
Donna Budynas’ sixth graders began their distance learning viscosity lab by testing which liquids flowed the fastest. As in past years, Mrs. Budynas asked the girls to measure the resistance of hand soap, honey, cooking oil, and water. Before spring break, the class had discussed volcanoes and the viscosity of different types of lava. With students confined to their homes, Mrs. Budynas thought it would be fun to take the viscosity experiment to the next level.
“Often in movies we see people running and being overtaken by hot lava, so I decided it might be fun to see if we could outrun lava. I saw a similar experiment described on Facebook, so I took the idea and created the lab for my girls,” says Mrs. Budynas.
In addition to the actual scientific content, she wanted the girls to have real-world connections to the scientific content. “I wanted the girls to practice math skills with a real-world objective, get away from their screens and get some exercise, and perhaps create a fun family activity,” she says.
The assignment was to measure a distance of 50 yards and have a parent or sibling time them running the 50 yards. Students calculated how many yards they could run in a second. But lava flow is measured in miles/hour, not yards/second, so students had to do one final calculation to figure out whether they could outrun the thick, high viscosity lava from explosive volcanoes like Mount St. Helens or the thinner, lower viscosity lava from quiet volcanoes such as the Hawaiian Islands.

Lilly Hussey ’26, who recruited her dad and sister Hannah, learned the family would be safe in the shadows of an explosive volcano, but the Hawaiian Island volcanoes could be a problem.
“I cannot outrun the low viscosity lava, but I can outrun high viscosity lava,” Lilly wrote.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Budynas is considering repeating the outrunning lava experiment next year. But without the safer at home social distancing component.
“I have not done this outrun the lava lesson during the regular school year before, but I think I might add it in the coming years,” says Mrs. Budynas.

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