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ACTIVITY: Surfing the Waves

NGSS Science and Engineering Practices:

NGSS Crosscutting Concepts:

NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas:

The activity below draws from the content in the page Surfing the Waves.

<p><strong>Fig. 1.</strong> Surfers ride a large wave at Waimea Bay, Hawai‘i.</p>Phenomenon:

When a surfer catches a wave at the right place, it pushes them forward.



What are the features of a wave?
How do waves move surfers?


Guiding Questions:

  1. What are the features of a wave?
  2. How does knowledge of waves help surfers?



Build a wave tank to describe the wave in terms of itʻs features. Add a 'surfer' to model how the energy stored in waves can push a surfboard forward as the wave moves into shallow water. 


  • Student Worksheet and Teacher Guide (attached below):

Part A. Make Waves

  • Slinky
  • Large clear tray to hold water
  • Spatula (or something to act as a small paddle)

Part B. Surf the Waves

  • Small box or thick textbook (something to prop up your water basin)
  • A small, floating object

Teacher Recommendations:


Part A. Make waves!

  1. ​Follow along on your worksheet to answer questions, build, and test your model.
  2. Before building your model to explore waves, think about the last time you were at the beach to answer these questions:
    1. What did the waves look like? Describe.
    2. Did you see any surfers? If so, where were they waiting?
    3. How often were the waves coming? Did they have a fast or slow frequency?
    4. How tall were the waves? Did they have a big or a small amplitude?
  3. Now simulate the movement of waves. In a group of two, hold on to either side of the slinky and sit opposite each other so the slinky is a bit stretched out (about 6 feet or more).
  4. Have one person hold one end still, while the other moves their hand up and down to make waves. 
  5. What do you see? Draw what you see and label the parts of the waves on your worksheet.

Part B. Make water waves!

  1. Now that you can visualize the patterns in waves, practice making them in your wave tank! Fill your wave tank about halfway with water. Make sure there isn't too much water that will spill over the sides!
  2. Put the flat side of your paddle in on one side of the tank and push the water towards the other side in a slow, repeating motion. Note: you can use a metronome to keep the rythm!
  3. What do you see?

Part C. Surf the Waves!

  1. Now, set up your tank to model the beach profile. Prop your tank up on one side with an object. Careful not to spill water! Note: you may need to empy some water.
    1. Place a thick textbook (or another item to prop) under one side of your clear tray.
  2. Practice making your wave by placing the flat end of the spatula into the deep side of the model. Pulse it once towards the shallow end.
    1. What happened?
  3. Before testing the influence of waves on your floating object, think about what may happen and answer the quetions below.
    1. If the floating object is in the deep water, what will happen when you make a wave?
    2. If the floating object is in the shallow water, what will happen when you make a wave?
    3. Where do surfers generally wait to catch waves?
  4. Place your floating object on the water and tilt the bucket from one side, then slowly lower it back down. 

Activity Questions:

  1. Describe the general motion of the waves you created.
  2. How did the waves change when you:
    a. Tilted the bucket higher?
    b. Set the bucket down faster?
  3. How were your waves similar to ocean waves breaking on the shore? How were they different?
  4. What happened to the surfer when you made waves?
  5. Did your surfer catch and move forward on every wave you made? If not, what happened to the surfer on the waves it did not catch (how did it move)?
  6. Were there techniques that helped your surfer catch waves?
  7. How was the surfer’s experience similar to or different from a surfer in real life?

Table of Contents:

Exploring Our Fluid Earth, a product of the Curriculum Research & Development Group (CRDG), College of Education. University of Hawaii, 2011. This document may be freely reproduced and distributed for non-profit educational purposes.