I don't know about you, but pretty soon here (in Minnesota) it is going to get outrageously cold outside. January is notorious for its stinging, cutting, numbing, eyelash freezing, breathtaking (literally), bitter cold temperatures. By "cold" I mean -20 degrees F for weeks at a time. That kind of cold makes it difficult to want to go outside to grab the mail let alone go out for a nature walk.
So here we are. With questionable weather and winter break on the horizon, parents and educators are going to be scrambling for some fun, stimulating indoor activities. STEM is the way to go. If you're an educator just trying to survive until winter break, try some of these STEM challenges. These activities are fun, they will occupy the antsy kiddos that are hopped up on holiday madness and break anticipation, and they are educational. STEM is a great way to learn content knowledge and build essential 21st-century skills.
The STEM challenges below are great for beginner STEM educators who might feel a tad intimidated by the prospect. I know the feeling. These activities are also adaptable for all ages and skill levels. I have done the sled challenge mentioned below with my 5 and 3-year-old, as well as with my high school students, I modify my facilitation method, level of involvement, and expectations of my learners. Tips provided below! If you're not quite sure what STEM is, head to these posts on STEM 101.
Below you'll find challenges that can be done using standard household/classroom items, trash, or recyclables. These activities are also highly flexible. If you don't have a "bigfoot" toy, for example, use something else! If you don't have a sledding hill, make one! Don't spend money, be open-minded, let kids get creative, and have fun!
Snow Day Inspired STEM Activities
1. Animal Rescue
The goal of this STEM challenge is to "rescue" an "animal" by engineering a contraption that will bring the "animal" to "safety". In other words, learners will design and build a tool that will bring a toy animal from point A to point B. I place the animal at point A, walk about 15 feet, and place a strip of electrical tape on the floor marking point B. Students cannot step over this line to rescue their animal.
I have done this activity with my own young children as well as my high school students. My children did exactly what I described above, only I added a little background story to make it more interesting - the animal was trapped on an island surrounded by lava. My high schoolers did the same activity except I used this challenge as a way to simulate adaptations and variability as they relate to natural selection. I threw a pile of paper clips on the floor (bugs), made a large circle around the paper clips using electrical tape, and asked students to make contraptions (birds) with the goal of collecting the most paper clips (bugs) from the center of the circle. The students gained content knowledge AND skills in a fun, interesting, and relevant way; my goal for any learning experience.
2. Yeti Escape
Students will make a "yeti" out of basic household/classroom materials and recyclables that will be placed on top of Sphero, like a cover. As Sphero moves, the "yeti" moves with it. The challenge is to create the fastest "yeti". If this isn't making sense, check out the pictures below. Hopefully they will clarify some things!
If you have used a Sphero you know that they are not very powerful because they are round and made of smooth plastic; they slip easily. The covers, then, need to be engineered in a way that promote quick movement, as the goal is for students to create a yeti that makes the fastest escape. My kindergartener did this challenge and had to modify his design many times playing around with yeti weight, materials, and weight distribution. Older students could design and conduct their own experiments around the same idea. They could also play around with coding Sphero. They could create a maze and code Sphero (and Yeti) to move through it. Get creative! Or give learners the freedom to lead their own learning experience using Sphero.
If you like this challenge but don't have Sphero, don't go out and buy one! Just alter the mode of transportation. A balloon car is a good option that would demonstrate similar concepts and offer the same skill building opportunities.
3. Lego Float
This is a favorite because my child initiated the experience. He was playing around with a helium balloon that he got from a birthday party. I noticed him tying LEGO figures to the balloon string. Then he began to add and remove LEGO accessories to the LEGO figure tied to the balloon. He continued to do this until the balloon hovered at a level that was within his reach. He basically eliminated the need to hop on a chair to retrieve his balloon. Problem-solving at it's finest, and completely self-led.
For children his age, then, a great activity would be to design a balloon weight using whatever materials available to keep the balloon within reach. LEGO's were great, but so are toothpicks, paperclips, cotton balls, and more. Tie this experience to lessons about mass, gravity, gas and so on, or just let kids enjoy the experience of working with their hands and solving a problem as a team. Older students could take it up a notch by, again, designing their own experiments and conducting them. This is scientific open-inquiry; a student-led scientific inquiry investigation. Click here for a scientific open-inquiry tool kit
4. Sled Race
Learners design and engineer a mini-sled with the goal of winning a sled race. This is a fun way to introduce Newton's Laws of Motion. Students take many factors into consideration including sled material, track material (you do not NEED an actual sledding hill for this experience), angle of the track, weight distribution, etc. They also practice many of the skills already mentioned that STEM challenges have to offer. I have done this with my children and my high school students. Although the outcomes were different between the age groups, the process was the same. Both groups are encouraged to fail, identify solutions, modify the design, try again, fail, and so and so on.
I recently started a STEM Challenge product line in my store, and STEM Challenge: The Great Sled Race is the first resource in the line! It includes all of the materials to guide you and your students through the experience seamlessly from start to finish.
5. Obstacle Course
This is a great one for those stir-crazy youngsters that are trapped indoors, during break, for example. This is best suited for younger children, as space is a factor. I told my children to make an obstacle course in our basement using only items that were within sight. They propped couch cushions against each other to make tunnels, placed pillows on the floor to use as stepping stones, and even added rules and a background story creating a full-blown adventure.
This may sound fairly basic, and it is. But it's one of the reasons why I love this activity. It's easy to get started, it's child-led, it involves play and make-believe, it gives kids an opportunity to practice social-emotional skills, and so on. It is even a good way to introduce some math and science concepts. For example, my 5-year-old propped two couch cushions against each other to create an A-frame to crawl through. Every time he crawled through the A-frame it would topple over. He played around with it, adjusted the angle, explored propping the pillows on different planes, and more.
6. Winter Shelter
This is another challenge that can be done across age groups and skills levels. I did this challenge with my toddler! The challenge is to build a shelter that can withstand cold temperatures using any materials that you have on hand (tin foil, styrofoam, play dough, clay, egg cartons, cardboard, etc. - one of my high school students even used snow). The goal is to build the warmest shelter. Have learners build their shelters, place a chunk of banana in their shelters, put their shelters in a freezer or outside if it's cold enough, and let them sit there for at least one hour. Take the shelters out of the cold and check the banana's temperature in each shelter using a candy thermometer.
This is a fun way to play around with the concept of heat transfer. Older students could do this exact same experiment, and mine have. They could also design and conduct their own open-inquiry investigations around this same idea. Head back up for the link to my inquiry tool kit.
7. Ski Lift
This challenge involves getting a skier (a LEGO figure is one option) to the top of a ski hill (actual snow hill or ramp of any kind) using a simple machine or a combination of simple machines. In other words, students cannot move the skier to the top of the hill with their hands. They will design and build a pulley, lever, wheel and axle, etc., that will do the job for them. Students could get as elaborate as they would like with their systems, using a combination of machines. There is no limit to ingenuity!
8. Zip Line
This is such a fun and easy challenge. It is exactly how it sounds, and is a common introductory STEM activity. My 5-year-old did this a few months ago. The goal was to get his Batman LEGO figure from one end of the room to the other by making a zip line. The number of factors to mull over in this challenge is high, including the zip line material, angle of the line, weight of the rider, friction between the line and the glider, and so on. Use this activity to teach about angles, gravity, motion, friction, and more.
9. Stuffed Animal Hotel
Again, this is exactly how it sounds! Learners build a stuffed animal hotel using cardboard as their basic framework. For younger students like my 5-year-old, building a stationary hotel is a challenge in itself. Building stairs was a hard concept to grasp as was keeping a ramp from caving in. This is a great activity for younger children to learn some geometry concepts such as shapes and angles.
Older students could add to the challenge by including several moving parts such as an elevator, lift, garage opener, etc. And rather than create a hotel for stuffed animals, toys that they most likely lost interest in long ago, have them create something more relevant to their lives such as their dream home or school. They could even extend this experience into a full-blown project-based learning experience. Check out the many posts that I have written on project-based learning for details and implementation tips by clicking on PBL in the archives. You can also head to Experiential Learning Depot on TpT for project-based learning resources.
10. Bigfoot Trap
My child has been on a bigfoot kick for years, so I only use bigfoot as the subject here because I have many bigfoot figurines in my house, AND, if you follow me on Instagram, you know that a "bigfoot hunt" has become a winter family tradition. However, you do not NEED to use a bigfoot toy for this fun challenge. Use anything!
Students will design and make a trap for bigfoot using a hodgepodge of whatever supplies are available and trap it! Placing the bigfoot or other object on a target will trigger an action that will trap bigfoot. Kids will draw from observations and experiences, test their traps, make adjustments, try again, and so on until they have created an effective bigfoot trap!
So there you have it. STEM is such a fantastic way to encourage discovery through observation, questioning, failure, and problem-solving. It organically integrates subject matter and provides opportunities to practice and build important skills. All great things. Why learn about natural selection or Newton's Laws of Motion by reading about them in textbooks when kids can learn about these concepts with hands-on experience?
What are some STEM activities that you do with your kids or students? If you try any of the STEM activities I mentioned above, I'd love a report on the experience. Let me know how it goes! Have a great break, everyone!
I'm so excited to introduce Eliot Kersgaard from Myra Makes as my guest blogger this week! I've been interested in STEAM for a long time, but do not feel at all equipped at this point to write about it. I'm lucky to have connected with Eliot, a STEAM rockstar, who was kind enough to share his thoughts and expertise with us.
Eliot Kersgaard is the cofounder and director of Myra Makes. He was born and raised in Colorado and has a degree in Engineering Physics from the University of Colorado. He has experience in nonprofit management, urban agriculture, STEAM education, physics, metaphysics, design thinking, permaculture and multimedia art.
5 Ways STEAM Can Improve Learning Outcomes
STEAM is one of the new buzzwords on the block in the experiential education movement. But what does it mean, and why should we care?
In most circles, STEAM education is a modification to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math), which includes the A for the Arts. Some organizations, like Maker Bolder in Colorado, switch out a couple of the STEM letters and call STEAM Science, Technology, Entrepreneurship, Arts and Making. To avoid confusion, we’ll think about STEAM in this article as the traditional STEM subjects plus the Arts.
The idea behind STEM and STEAM is not merely that these subjects are important, but that they are best taught together, as complementary subjects. And while STEM might conjure a picture of kids making robots or learning to code, the aim isn’t about getting more kids to build robots and make video games. And adding the “A” isn’t about making those robots prettier. The inclusion of Arts in the mix is a recognition that creative, divergent, and aesthetic thinking are key ingredients to success, innovation, and communication in STEM and life in general. The fundamental objective of STEAM in my mind is to help create a more technically literate society that better understands how science works and is able to think creatively to adapt to these changes and leverage them for the best.
STEAM is part of a growing movement of integrated education, and most in the STEAM movement also recognize the importance of other educational philosophies and tools into their approaches. These include problem-based learning, making, experiential learning, nature-based education, and social-emotional learning. Just as STEAM subjects are strengthened when considered together, these lenses and tools are strengthened when combined.
A collaborative brainstorming session focused on generating ideas to make a difference in our communities.
STEAM education is one way to frame learning during an impact-oriented project.
STEAM, along with other educational philosophies in the dialogue today, can seem intimidating to teachers, kids, and parents because it seems to demand more of everyone involved. This uncertainty and fear is valid, and the STEAM approach is fundamentally different from the educational system that has been developed in the West since the mid 1800’s. However, before that time, STEAM, Making, and problem-based learning, while not called by these names, were the standard for learning and learning environments. Prior to the industrial revolution, it was common for thought leaders in many disciplines to cross disciplinary bridges. Think Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, and Hypatia. In many ways, the STEAM and aligned movements are a rekindling of how education has been conducted for most of human civilization.
OK, but what does STEAM education actually look like? I’ll explain through an example of a STEAM project. Imagine that a homeschool family has decided to construct a small greenhouse and outdoor garden. They decide to use this project as a STEAM learning opportunity. The project is broken into five different elements, one for each of the STEAM letters. Note that while the project described is a lengthy project, STEAM learning can take place over shorter times and with less planning as well. See Myra Makes (and a future post here!) for some ideas of quick STEAM activities to do at home.
A garden project, real or imagined, can introduce STEAM topics (pictured: Journey to Cloud City by Myra Makes)
For science, the students will study garden and greenhouse ecology to decide what species to include and what they will need to thrive. For technology, the students will create automated systems of light, heat and water to ensure everything runs smoothly and to reduce the workload during operation. For engineering, the students will design and build the infrastructure needed. For art, the students will design the overall arrangement of all of the elements, create a mural on the side of the garden beds to represent their visions for the project, and write a summary of the project so others can learn from the experience. Finally, for math, the students will create a budget for the project and decide on the various purchases needed. The key factor that makes this project a STEAM project is that learning in one of the areas is connected to learning in all of the other areas. The technology element draws from biology to determine the appropriate light and water requirements for the plants. The engineering element must consider the technology that will be included as well as the ecology. The artistic element brings all of the other elements together to determine how to represent the project to the outside world and create an overarching design.
The results are improved learning outcomes across the board, beginning with:
Number Five: Increasing content relevance
In work, entrepreneurial, or home contexts, the STEAM fields rarely live in isolation from one another. The construction of a garden and greenhouse is one example of how they are likely to be found together. By teaching these subjects together, we are able to more closely mimic how students are likely to encounter them later in life. This strengthens the mental pathways that connect these subjects so that students will be better equipped to understand, analyze and design in situations they will encounter later in life. This increased relevance is the foundation for the other improvements in learning outcomes coming later on this list.
Number Four: Engaging a greater diversity of learners
In the normalized academic structure of having each subject taught separately, students can easily become alienated from specific subjects. Students can lose interest in a class and have a difficult time becoming engaged again as the content grows more difficult and they struggle to play catch-up. If a student is disengaged in math, it is unlikely that more difficult math in the context of another math class will be a gateway to interest. On the other hand, teaching multiple subjects together provides more avenues for learners to become interested in the material. If math is taught alongside art or biology, there are now routes for students interested in art or biology to become interested in math as well.
Number Three: Building creative, problem-solving and design skills
While it is true that careers in science and technology are becoming more plentiful, the most sought-after skills in the workforce are more abstract: problem-solving and creativity. These skills are fundamentally a blend between artistic thinking and scientific thinking. Artistic thinking is divergent, on-the-fly thinking, identifying many approaches to a problem, and connecting disparate elements together. Scientific thinking emphasizes analysis, optimization, and experimentation. As a simplification, the arts are the beginning, highly creative stages of a design process, while the sciences are later stages of analysis and optimization. By teaching them together, problem solving and design are embedded throughout the curriculum.
Problem-solving games can encourage kids to draw on their knowledge of STEAM subjects
to bring their imaginations to life (pictured: Inventure by Myra Makes (prototype))
Number Two: Increasing learner agency
As discussed in our Number Four, STEAM education increases the number of pathways to learning subject material. By mixing and matching subject matter, there are many entry points to the material and there are many ways of thinking about it. Just as this allows STEAM to engage a more diverse array of learners, it allows learners to explore their own personal learning style, connect the subject matter with their interests, and find new learning approaches that work best for them. These combine to increase the agency, or freedom, of a learner. This deepened agency is key to fostering lifelong learning, one of the fundamental aims of integrated education.
Number One: Improving content mastery
While each element on this list is valuable in itself, they also work together to increase students’ content mastery. In other words, their testable outcomes will improve. This is an emergent, almost accidental result of engaging more learners, increasing content relevance, and increasing learner agency.
About Myra Makes:
Myra Makes is a grassroots startup based in Colorado. We believe that every person has the innate capacity to contribute to a brighter future for all while meeting their needs and developing their passions. Our mission is to create a more playful and just society by enriching the lives of kids, teachers and families. To achieve this, we create books, games, and programs to engage the whole child in creative pursuits.
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As most of you know, I write experiential learning curriculum, primarily on project-based learning. I also have extensive experience with school travel, problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning, and dabble around with maker education. I have a background in science, I promote 21st-century learning environments, and of course, I am a passionate advocate for experiential learning. Naturally, I would do STEM with my students, right? I actually have not done STEM with my students, at least not in the formal sense.
I've been wanting to get into STEM for a long time, but have had some reservations about it, largely based on my own insecurities with knowledge and ability to get the job done. Science - sure, I have that covered. But technology, engineering, and math? I feel inadequate teaching my students any of those things independently let alone collectively. No way.
A couple months ago I got into a conversation with Ashley Pereira about teaching STEM. Ashley is the founder of Career in STEM, an awesome organization that promotes just that, careers in STEM. Her website is a phenomenal STEM resource for educators, parents, and students. Scroll down to the bottom of the page for details on her organization.
After spending some time talking with Ashley I have realized that my fear of teaching STEM was based on many misconceptions and misunderstandings that I had been sitting on. The take-home from this conversation was that anyone can do STEM. Anyone can teach STEM. You might feel out of your element at first, as would anyone trying anything new, but you can't know the benefits unless you try. Kids are adaptable and they're definitely forgiving. Just give it a shot!
If you're interested in trying out STEM start here with Ashley. She has a lot of experience and knows the drill.
Ashley Pereira has worked in STEM education since 2008, beginning with humble roots over a decade ago as an intern for the national 4-H organization. She holds a BS Degree in Animal Science from the University of Connecticut, and Masters degree in Secondary Education from Eastern CT State University with Summa Cum Laude honors. Ashley is a K-12 licensed STEM educator, a certified Career Coach, and experienced entrepreneur. Since 2015 Ashley has served as adjunct Professor of Science Education at Eastern Connecticut State University, where she specializes in teaching STEM as a mindset. Ashley is Founder and CEO of Greater Good Consultants LLC and its subsidiary, Career In STEM®, where she empowers youth, builds communities, and enhances economic opportunity for all.
Getting Started with STEM: Interview with Ashley Pereira from Career in STEM
1. How would you define STEM? How does each component (science, technology, engineering, math) fit into the bigger picture?
To me STEM is not the discrete topics of science, technology, engineering and math. It is a mindset wherein the four ‘components’ merge, through which we process and understand our world.
2. What is an example of a STEM activity? Describe what that might look like in action? What are the students doing? What is the teacher doing? Are there steps the students follow?
Whenever you are doing something that requires analysis, you are doing STEM. Thus there is no specific way a STEM activity could/should look. It will be unique to each person. That said, there are some commonalities to how a STEM activity can ‘look’ especially when speaking of classroom-based instruction. My preference is the 5E model of teaching and learning. Other core components of effective STEM instruction:
3. What does the learning space look like in a STEM learning environment?
Since I define STEM so broadly, there is no set ‘must’. My preferences would be a space that is
- customizable/adaptable (ex: desks that can easily be arranged)
- routine based (ex: all students know what to do upon entering the classroom)
- stocked with items to foster creativity and innovation (ex: books, tinker box, etc.)
4. Is STEM integrated? In other words, could you incorporate STEM into class subjects such as writing, literature, social studies, physical education, history, music, etc?
YES! It should be. Sadly this integration is rare. Most schools do not integrate at all.
5. Along the same lines as the previous question, could stem align with standards? Unfortunately, educators are often bound by this reality.
The new Next Generation Standards are already aligned with the Common Core at all grades,
K-12. I would tell teachers that STEM is NOT extra! Rather, go to https://www.nextgenscience.org/search-standards and find a science standard that is aligned with the Common Core standard you ‘need to cover’. You would be killing 2 birds with one stone! Plus, your students would likely be more engaged because the NGSS requires students to DO things with their knowledge and apply it to relevant contexts. Also, the NGSS is called ‘science standards’, but they are really STEM standards, as they incorporate math, engineering, and technology within the standards themselves.
6. There are a lot of buzzwords with overlapping ideologies: makerspace, problem-based learning, STEM, STEAM, inquiry, project-based learning. What sets STEM apart from the others?
I view STEM as an overarching ‘umbrella’ term. All the things you list fall under the umbrella of STEM. STEM is the mindset students employ when participating in project-based learning, an inquiry-based lesson, a makerspace activity, etc.
7. What is one common misconception about STEM learning?
To me the biggest misconception is that STEM has to be something ‘different’ or ‘extra’. I completely disagree, and argue that STEM relates to any content, anywhere. For example, you are making hypotheses when reading a story in ELA class (science), using technology in pretty much every subject area, applying the engineering design process when building in the block center, and using math when making a recipe at home. STEM is happening already. Thus you do not need to ‘do’ STEM. Rather, teachers/parents should make it a point to identify the STEM that is already happening, and making connections to that (natural vs arbitrary/contrived STEM learning).
8. I for one have wanted to practice stem in my classroom but am not confident in my ability to do so. What would you say to those that feel the same way?
The worst thing you can do is nothing at all! Don’t expect to be the expert. Rather, take it one class/lesson at a time. Start with what you are ALREADY doing. Then try to find at least 1 STEM connection for that lesson. I have a free PD course I put together on how to do this here.
9. If I want STEM in my classroom where do I start?
To me the first place to start is to connect STEM to what you are ALREADY going to do. Start with one lesson per week, then gradually increase so soon all your lessons are STEM lessons, whether in history class, ELA, or any other subject. Taking it one lesson at a time rather than trying to plan projects and change your curriculum is much more sustainable and will help you maintain constant emphasis on STEM.
10. What are some STEM resources that you would recommend?
Of course www.careerinstem.com because it is my website! The two top ones are:
11. How could an instructor propose STEM to their administration? In other words, what is the value of STEM?
STEM itself is not all that valuable – STEM as a MINDSET is what is valuable. In ‘doing STEM’ students learn how to think, ask questions, and find their own answers. To me society is in desperate need of kids who can do this proficiently, and STEM is the only approach that can truly accomplish this.
Career in STEM:
Again, Ashley's organization is called Career in STEM. If you're interested in her work, start by visiting www.careerinstem.com. Peruse the website and find what's right for you. She provides classroom lessons, many of which are free. She offers a free online professional development course for educators as she mentioned above. Her blog is amazing! There are a lot of resources there for anyone interested in STEM. She also offers resources to students such as "Career Pathways Academy", an online course for teens interested in STEM. My favorite part of her website is the "Explore" section. There you can find interviews with STEM professionals, students can explore STEM careers based on personal interest, and there are free modules with information on various STEM careers.
I hope this has been helpful. Now get out there and start incorporating STEM into your curriculum!
To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.