What is STEM?
STEM is an acronym that stands for science, technology, engineering and math. It is a curriculum-based, interdisciplinary approach between the four areas that also involves application. STEM goes beyond classroom learning into more real-world application. The hope is not only to build more interest in these fields but to also better prepare students as they begin to understand how each of these disciplines relates to one another.
STEM Activities for Kids
Engaging kids in STEM activities encourages them to try out logical processes while challenging them to think outside the box and create innovative solutions.
Here are STEM activities for all ages that will help your learners make fun new discoveries and grow their genius in all sorts of new and creative ways!
Coded Name/Initials Necklace
Binary code is the foundational building block for learning about technology and has long been the standard for information storage in computers. This fun game introduces binary code while learning how to put your name in binary language.
You Will Need:
- Text-to-binary decoder for initials
- Paper for converting names
- Initials and short words to code
- Elastic jewelry cord
- Plastic beads that can be strung on cord: black, white, and glow in the dark
- Enter each student’s initials or name in the text-to-binary decoder (ASCII encodes each letter with eight bits).
- First, have students plan out their patterns using a piece of paper with boxes to match the code, coloring boxes in for zero and leaving empty for one.
- Have students string out their binary number code pattern with beads: using black for zero and white beads for one (optional: a glow-in-the-dark bead for the spaces in between letters).
: Technology, Coding
This is a great experiment for teaching non-Newtonian fluids
. It’s a great way to illustrate how liquid elements can shift in their viscosity when under stress. In manufacturing some products such as soap, butter or toothpaste, engineers need to consider sheer stress and how a substance will respond to it when selecting manufacturing equipment. After the activity, talk about ways that shear stress can impact the viscosity of a non-Newtonian fluid.
You Will Need:
- Food coloring in several colors
- Measuring cups
- Several bowls for different colors and spoon for mixing
- Ice cube trays
- Plastic plates
- Watercolor paper
- Combine 1.5 cups cornstarch and ¾ cup water in a bowl, add food coloring and stir to combine. Repeat in separate bowls for separate colors.
- Quickly pour each mixture into ice cube trays. Freeze overnight. Place the frozen goop cubes on a plastic plate or a tray if working in groups.
- Then play! You can rub the melting cubes on a piece of watercolor paper or draw with the cubes on pavement (the painting will appear as the goop dries). Try mixing colors to experiment with the idea of secondary colors.
Discuss non-Newtonian fluid and how it changes with pressure like holding it in your hand and when released back into the tray. For a seasonal twist, look for shaped cube trays like bats or hearts.
Concepts: Science, non-Newtonian fluid
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This is a fun experiment to see several principles come together in an applicable manner. You’ll be building a balloon-powered car with a few simple supplies. For an extra touch, kids can add stickers or designs to their cars.
You Will Need:
- Toilet paper rolls
- Masking tape
- Paper straws
- Bamboo skewers
- Glue gun (with adult supervision)
- One balloon per student
- Rubber band
- Use a template to cut a cardboard circle 1½ inches in diameter. Make 4 circles per student.
- Use the bamboo skewer (either adults do this ahead of time or supervise students) to make a hole in the center of each cardboard circle. Cut skewers into two 4-inch pieces.
- Cut two 3-inch pieces of paper straw per student. Tape them on the toilet paper roll. These will hold your wheel axles.
- Feed the 4-inch skewers through the straws and place a cardboard wheel on each end. Hot glue (with adult supervision) the end of the skewer to the wheel.
- Cut a 5-inch piece of paper straw. Place the balloon over the end of the straw and wrap a rubber band around the neck of the balloon and the straw to make a tight seal.
- Attach it to your car so the wheels are on the bottom and there is enough straw overhang to blow up the balloon. Use the straw to blow up the balloon and let it fly.
If it’s not moving well, check to make sure you have sealed the airflow between the balloon and straw. Try rolling the car without the balloon power and see if your wheels and axles are working smoothly.
Concepts: Engineering, Wheel and Axle, Newton’s Third Law of Motion, Natural Energy
Candy Bar Core Samples
This is a fun and easy experiment that demonstrates the core sampling process — similar to how geologists take samples to assess the soil composition. Engineers use samples to check the composition of the soil to help build strongly supported structures. Companies also do this before they drill in certain areas or mining for energy sources. It’s a great way to demonstrate the principle and talk about some of the uneven distribution of resources that can be found in a soil sample.
You Will Need:
- Mini or fun-size candy bars
- Larger clear sturdy plastic drinking straws (clear reusable straws work well and can be sectioned to make them go further)
- Small plates
- Paper towels
- Unwrap several different candy bars and put on a plate. Pro Tip: Use room temperature or slightly warmed up bars to soften them. Gently push a straw straight through the candy bar from the top all the way to the bottom (you may need to twist the straw gently).
- Remove the straw by pulling it back out the top of the candy bar. Clean the outside of the straw for better visibility. Trim the straw to just above the candy sample.
- Repeat this with different candy bars and keep track of which sample came from which bar. Make a numbered sample set (with the identities kept secret) and have students compare their core samples with your sample set.
Geologists use drills to take core samples and then can compare the layers, identifying things about climate, vegetation and animal life. What do your core samples say about your candy bars? Do the core samples of the same candy bars always come out the same?
Concepts: Science, Core Samples
If/Then Coding Game
In this age, some familiarity with computer coding is important. Even if you aren’t a computer programmer or web developer, it is increasingly important to be familiar with the concept. Conditional statements are common in video games, so that’s an easy way to help kids understand the principle.
You Will Need:
- Outside space and a class of kiddos!
- Difficulty Level 1: One child is the “Programmer” and everyone else is a “Computer.” The Programmer stands in front of the computers and gives them the command, “If I ____, then you _____.” For example, “If I put up my left hand, you put up your left hand.” That version works well for preschoolers. You can set up rounds however you’d like, for example three rounds per Programmer and then switch. If computers don’t do the correct command, they sit down.
- Difficulty Level 2: Have the Computers do something different than the Programmer (for example the Programmer pats his head, the Computers rub their tummies). They are to stop and start at the same time as the programmer but do a different action, and if they get mixed up, they sit down.
- Difficulty Level 3: Add to the coding complexity with If-Then-Else statements. For example, the Programmer commands, “If I raise my right arm, then you raise your left arm, else raise your right foot.” So if the Programmer just stands there and does nothing, the computers should all be raising their right foot. Have the Computers sit down if they don’t follow commands correctly and the last Computer standing wins.
: Technology, Coding, If-Then-Else Commands
This experiment is a great exercise in talking about density and buoyancy, as well as what happens to molecules when they are heated up. In this experiment, students will learn that Ivory soap is much lighter because it is filled with air molecules. When those molecules are heated, there is an expansion that causes the bar of soap to puff up.
You Will Need:
- Bowl of water
- Bar of Ivory soap (can be cut in half for classroom use)
- Several other brands of soap
- Microwave-safe plate
- Weigh all the bars of soap and record. Place the bar of Ivory soap into the bowl of water and record whether it floats or sinks. Test out other bars to see if they sink or float.
- Place the bar of Ivory soap on a microwave-safe plate and cook for 1 minute, watching it carefully. Record observations.
- Do the same with the other bars of soap (if there is a burning smell, stop the microwave). Record observations and the weights after microwaving and see if there is a relationship between the density of a bar of soap and how it behaves in the microwave.
Because of the air pockets in Ivory soap that are whipped in, it floats more readily. And when Ivory soap is cooked, the water molecules in the air pockets turn into water vapor, making it puff up.
Concepts: Science, Math, Weight Changes, Buoyancy
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Colorful Connectors Marshmallow Structures
In this experiment, kids will build structures with skewers and marshmallows as the connectors. This is a helpful way to think about structural design. It also can involve an element of creativity because there are a number of fun structures that students will be able to build.
You Will Need:
- Bamboo skewers (12-inch, cut in half with sharp ends removed)
- Large marshmallows
- Food coloring
- Set out marshmallows the night before to let them harden a bit. This makes them easier to build with. You could even try this project with toothpicks and mini marshmallows.
- Build a square or triangle base by connecting skewers with marshmallows (in engineering this is called a structural frame).
- Add vertical skewers and connect them to make a cube or pyramid.
- Add diagonal skewers for extra support (in engineering these are called diagonal bracing).
- Add an art element to this engineering project by allowing students to use food coloring and water to paint the marshmallows (but not too wet or they will melt!) and allow them to dry overnight.
: Engineering, Engineering Terminology
DNA Extraction Kit
This is a fun experiment because you will actually be able to see strawberry DNA. DNA is too small to be seen but you will be able to see the clusters of DNA forming — making them visible.
You Will Need:
- Rubbing alcohol
- Strawberries (3 per group)
- Liquid dish soap (not for dishwashers)
- Measuring spoons and cups
- Empty yogurt cups for mixing
- Resealable sandwich bags
- Chilled rubbing alcohol
- One funnel per group
- One clear tall drinking glass per group
- Baby food jars
- Toothpicks or craft sticks
- Mix ? cup water, ½ tsp. salt and 1 tbsp. dishwashing liquid in the yogurt cup. This is your extraction liquid to extract DNA from the strawberries. Set aside.
- Completely line the funnel with cheesecloth, put the funnel into a tall clear drinking glass and set aside.
- Remove and discard the green tops of strawberries and put the strawberries in the resealable bag, seal the bag tightly. Squeeze and smash the berries for two minutes.
- Add 3 Tbsp. of the extraction liquid, push out all the air and reseal the bag. Squeeze the mixture again.
- Pour the mixture through the cheesecloth-lined funnel into the tall clear glass until only wet pulp remains. Then pour the filtered strawberry liquid into the baby jar so it is approximately ¼ full.
- Measure out a 1/2 cup of cold rubbing alcohol, tilt the jar and very slowly add the alcohol down the side of the jar. Pour until the alcohol has formed a one-inch-deep layer over the strawberry liquid (you may not need it all). Don’t mix the two solutions.
Study the mixture and observe that the strawberry DNA will appear as gooey milky stringy stuff. Dip the craft stick into the jar where the two liquids meet and pull it up. The detergent mix actually has popped open the strawberry cells in order to release their DNA and the salt clumps the DNA strands. A single strand of DNA is too tiny to observe, but because the DNA has clumped together, you can see the DNA from the three strawberries.
Concepts: Science, DNA, Extraction Solutions
Connect 4 Fraction Game
This is a fun exercise that will teach fractions and some critical thinking. Students will be combining fractions together in order to make whole numbers. This helps with problem solving and is a fun way to use math to solve problems (via notimeforflashcards.com
You Will Need:
- Connect 4 game (singular station or multiple for groups)
- Masking tape
- Permanent marker
- Cut the tape to fit on the tokens and label the game pieces with a piece of tape with age-appropriate fractions. For example, for younger players, half the pieces can be labeled 1/3 and the other half 1/4.
- Have students compete to see if they can line up a row of three 1/3 pieces or four 1/4 pieces to make a straight line that equals a whole (they can do this vertically and horizontally).
- For larger fractions (like 1/2 and 3/4), you could change it so the winner is the person with the most whole numbers (keeping track when that happens) by the time the board is filled up.
: Math, Fractions
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Go and Grow Plant Maze
This is a great experiment to show how plants will stretch toward the light. It invites a discussion about why the plants seek the sun and the processes that occur when a plant receives light from the sun. You’ll be building tiered stories in the shoebox to create a winding mazelike path toward the hole in the top where the sun can be seen.
You Will Need:
- Rectangular, larger-sized shoeboxes (with lid)
- Cardboard cut to half the size of the inside of the box
- Utility knife to be used by adult supervisor
- Hot glue gun or strong tape
- Baby food jar
- Potting soil
- Fast-growing bean or pea seeds that climb
- Prepare the Plant Maze by placing the shoebox on its narrowest end with the front open. Tape any seams where light might get in. Adults should cut a large hole on the top of the box where light can get in.
- Tape or glue the first extra piece of cardboard horizontally across the inside of the box, making sure that the piece of cardboard is only ½ as wide as the inside of the box but extends in length to the box edge so the seal with the box lid will be tight.
- Stagger the next piece of cardboard several inches away, taping or gluing it to the walls of the shoebox on the opposite wall creating a maze-like configuration (it will look like you have built two ledges on opposite sides into your box).
- Make sure no light gets in when the lid is placed over the front of the box, only light from the top hole. Use a rubber band to hold the lid to the box if needed.
- Next, put several seeds in soil in a baby food jar, water them, open your Plant Maze and place the jar in the bottom under the first ledge (you may have to adjust your ledge to make sure there is enough room for sprouts to grow upwards and around it). You can place two jars with seeds if they fit.
Seal up your plant maze with the lid and put it in a sunny spot. Water the jars when the soil feels dry and then replace the lid tightly on the front. The plants will start to grow around the two cardboard ledges and seek the sun! For extra experimentation, plant different seeds or change the configuration of the ledges in your growing maze.
Concepts: Science, Photosynthesis, Auxin (Plant Hormones)
This experiment gets students thinking about structural engineering. It has a lot of application in the real world. In fact, tent designs have made some significant improvements in the last couple decades, leading to increased head room and outside vestibules for gear storage. Students can have fun designing their own tent structures.
You Will Need:
- Cardboard scraps to make a base for the tent
- Scraps of fabric
- Straws or skewers
: Have students use the materials provided to make different tent/shelter configurations on a small scale. In addition to the tape, you might find it helpful to use the connector marshmallow experiment to help connect the support beams for building the tent structures.
Challenge students to think outside the typical inverted-V shape by adding more angles for additional headroom, added rooms, and outside overhangs. Since some tents need to withstand snow and high winds on mountain ranges, help students think about ways to strengthen their designs to survive the elements. Have them think through what other structures could be held up by balanced forces? Talk about other ways guy lines are used in engineering.
Concepts: Engineering, Equilibrium, Guy Lines
This experiment is a bit strategic and will encourage critical thinking and design. Kids will be designing a paper chain out of one sheet of paper. The students will need to find optimum balance in making the chain long but still strong enough to not break when being held. Encourage them to use a ruler so that they can involve some math in this engineering project.
You Will Need:
- Glue stick or tape
: How long of a paper chain can you make out of just one sheet of paper? Challenge students to experiment with geometry and measurement as they think about how wide and long to make their strips of paper to make chains that link together.
Measure the finished paper chain. Try it again with a second piece of paper and see if it can be made longer by making changes to the width and/or length of the paper strips.
Concepts: Math, Engineering
In this activity, you will be building a catapult out of craft sticks. This will demonstrate the physics of energy. When you pull the catapult back, it creates potential energy that is stored. When you release the catapult, the energy turns to kinetic energy.
The cap will fly only based upon the amount of potential energy that was converted into kinetic. The cap falls back to earth due to gravity. Talk about the lessons learned and develop engineering adjustments to create more energy to make the cap fly further.
You Will Need:
- Jumbo craft sticks (7 per catapult)
- Rubber bands (3 per catapult)
- Plastic bottle cap (one per catapult)
- Hot glue gun (adult supervision required)
- Tape measure
- Things to launch like small plastic animals, pom poms, cotton balls
- Make stacks of 5 craft sticks and secure with a rubber band on each end. This will become your fulcrum.
- Secure the remaining 2 craft sticks to each other on one end with a rubber band (cutting notches on each side of both craft sticks about 1 inch from the end will help assure the rubber band stays in place).
- Wedge the fulcrum halfway between the open end of the 2 craft sticks. Hot glue a plastic bottle cap to the top end of the launcher and place a projective in the bottle cap. Let the launching begin!
Measure the distance and keep a record of how far the catapult launches different items. For more colorful catapults, allow students time to color the craft sticks with markers before securing them together.
For further experimentation, change the placement of the fulcrum and the height of the fulcrum by adding more craft sticks. Keep track of the results on a table. Discuss the principles learned.
Concepts: Engineering, Math, Potential Energy, Kinetic Energy
Remember that STEM activities are less about final outcomes and more about process, exploring, and making great discoveries about why things work (or don’t work!) in the world around us.
Brains grow strong when they sprout from a strong STEM challenge! Have fun applying classroom learning with these fun activities and experiments.
Julie David is a freelance writer, educator, and worship pastor's wife from the Midwest who likes warm hugs.