Introduction: Best STEM Activities for Different Age Groups
STEM activities are currently the most engaging, productive, and educational ways of teaching, but just the right one for students of a specific age group may be hard to find. Kids usually develop mindsets of their own, pick their areas of interest, and start making future plans near the end of middle school, and therefore the best time to perform hands-on activities involving Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math with them is before they get to 7th or 8th grade. With that in mind, here are the best STEM activities for kids of ages 4-6, 7-9, and 10-12.
Format: The activity for each age group will have two Steps, the Preparation and Action. The Preparation step includes an introduction to the activity, how it helps bolster the kids' educational knowledge & skills, materials needed (along with tools), and what things to do before the actual day of the activity. The Action step is how the activity will go (format of the day), what problems may be faced, and the results from our classrooms.
NOTE: Each of these activities has been performed in a classroom of kids of the proper age.
Step 1: Structures Challenge (Ages 4 - 6): Preparation
Prior to constructing any type of building, engineers first have to design and build a sturdy and fitting structure. They use concrete, timber framing, metal beams and slabs for this task, however, the same concept can be modeled with toothpicks, straws, and marshmallows! This classroom STEM challenge gives kids in kindergarten or 1st grade (aged 4-6) a chance to show their creativity and engineering skills. The tallest structure built in a limited period of time with the given materials (explained in detail later on) wins the challenge.
- Bag of Marshmallows
- Box of Toothpicks
- Bag of Straws
The first step is to get the materials and tools ready. This is an activity that’s exceptionally easy to prep for, since all you need to really do is find illustrative examples of structures or patterns the kids can use (any visual from google, like https://www.pinterest.com/pin/426293920954437218/ that may be replicated with the materials you provided will do. You can even draw or make some examples in front of them). You can also upgrade this activity by printing out templates that the kids can use to put together parts of their structures (videos from YouTube, like this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mBHJtWbsiaA may help too). Make sure to create a set of rules for the challenge, mines were:
- 20 Minute Time Limit
- 25 Marshmallows per Person
- Total of 40 Toothpicks + Straws (So 20:20, 15:25, 30:10, etc. The quantity of the two should add up to 40)
- Touching classmates’ structures not allowed
- Tallest and sturdiest structure wins (has to stand for 10 seconds, then it is measured with the ruler)
Step 2: Structures Challenge (Ages 4 - 6): Action!
Before starting the timer, it’s best to give a short lesson and provide kids with information about the challenge. First, show and explain the visuals, what ways of connection and patterns tend to be the strongest, and how that could be applied to structures with the given materials. It also helps the kids when the teacher demonstrates what’s being explained my making a small example structure, so keep that in mind.
When the class has a good understanding of what to do, everyone’s received their materials and tools, and the rules have been explained, ask the kids if they feel ready or have any questions. Then, start the timer!
Even with materials of slight variety, I saw many different combinations tested out and being used. Some kids were prototyping, others building support structures for the structures, and a few creating very original designs. There was a lot of thinking and collaboration in the air, as well as some failed attempts and falling structures. Twenty minutes is usually enough time for most kids to finish, depending on their design, but there was some incomplete ones at the end of time for us. If someone gets their building to be pretty high before the time ends, count to 10 (seconds) and record its height (cm). When the time is over, everyone puts their hands in the air, and backs off their table. The class counts to 10 together, and the teacher measures the structures that look tallest.
Our winner structure was 32 centimeters high! After each one has been recorded (or pictures taken), the kids are free to eat up the marshmallows of their structures! This activity is not only fun and delicious, but gets young kids in the mindset of using logic and math to build very simple structures and solve problems that model those faced in the real world. The skills gained from this 30-minute challenge can act as a base for more to be built upon them in the future. This is the ultimate youth-engineering STEM activity!
Approximate Activity Cost: $20
Step 3: Paper Circuits (Ages 7 - 9): Preparation
Electricity has surrounded our lives in the 21st century, and since the first inventions it was utilized in, it has improved our communication, transportation, standard of living, and education. Any technology which uses electricity has some type of circuit, whether it’s the PCB in a smartphone, a simple circuit in a toy, or even a… Paper Circuit! These are great for STEM activities to get kids introduced and interested into electricity and electrical engineering. The students of preferred age are usually in 1st through 3rd grades (aged 7-9), but this can be expanded to include 4th and 5th grades as well. Here’s what you’ll need:
- Colored & Regular Paper
- Coin Cell Batteries
- Conductive Copper Tape (Conductive Adhesive)
- Colored Pencils/Markers
- Pens & Pencils
- Glue Sticks
With all the tools and materials ready, the first step is to get the lesson together. This is the 15-20 minute time period during which the teacher will explain how circuits work (https://youtu.be/zSSkZ9F7Bng) and how to make a paper circuit (The fold technique: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7hb-9eUpfbQ or The card technique: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c_ApyKqqctM) to the kids. For the lesson, it’s helpful to use a white board or smart board to provide the kids with visuals. Before the day of the activity, I recommend making your own paper circuits to give and reference to as examples during the lesson. I made two, one representing a circuit that will work, and the other a circuit that won’t work. I recommend using google websites and youtube videos to learn about paper circuits if you don’t know much about them yourself. Pick which type of circuit (Fold Method or Card Press Method) you’d like the kids to make. Include the steps on how to make it in the lesson.
Step 4: Paper Circuits (Ages 7 - 9): Action!
Do not pass out materials until the lesson is finished and all questions are taken. After finishing the lesson, start out by handing out paper to the kids of the color they choose. First, instruct them to fold the piece of paper in half to create a card. Then, provide them with the colored pencils and markers, and instruct them to make a drawing with one spot where the LED will be placed to glow, and one spot where the battery will go for pressing, to act as a switch.
Once they’re done drawing, open up the inside of the card to make the circuit. This step may be different depending on what type of circuit you picked to make, we used the Card Press technique (Battery on one side’s end, end of circuit on the other side’s end. When card is closed, the end of circuit falls on top of battery’s " - " side, closing the circuit, as shown in the images). Assist the kids in going through each step to make the circuit. Some common problems that may be faced are:
1. Open Circuit. There is a gap somewhere in the circuit that prevents electricity flow. Check copper tape connections and whether the copper tape is touching the battery when the paper is folded.
2. Alternative Flow. There is no gap between the copper tape that touches each end of the LED, or there’s another way for the electricity to flow without passing through the LED. Re-do the LED connections and remove excess copper tape.
3. Burnt Out LED. Because this activity doesn’t involve resistors, 15-30 minutes of the LEDs staying constantly glowing may cause them to burn out. Avoid keeping them on for too long, since a burnt out LED requires replacement.
In addition to art, precision, and patience, this activity requires creative-thinking and problem-solving. None of the paper circuits our students made worked on the first try, they each required further maintenance, done by the kids! They get to face and make their ways through real problems in order to achieve the glowing LED. They also get to design and make their own circuits, as each needed to place their LED and Battery in a different place on the paper, and therefore, had to make the rest of the circuit accordingly, which is the real challenge to it.
Almost all of our paper circuits worked at the end, and all of the kids had fun. But more importantly, they learned information and strengthened skills they will use in both the lingering years and the far future. By combining art and current, paper circuits make electricity fun and fascinating to kids.
Approximate Activity Cost: $35
Step 5: Motor Craft (Ages 10 - 12): Preparation
Motors are a large part of engineering and are utilized more often as technology advances. But more importantly, they are great to use in STEM activities! This is a classroom project for elementary school students in grades 3rd through 5th (ages 10-12). The materials required and optional additions are as follows:
- DC Motors (Regular and/or Geared)
- Electrical Tape
- On/Off Switches
- Battery Holders
- Motor Mounts
- Wire Connectors
- Popsicle Sticks
- Masking Tape
- Hot Glue Sticks
- Bottle Caps (Metal or Plastic)
- Double Sided Foam Tape
- Fastener Dots
- Clear Tape
- Rubber Bands
- Cardboard (Not Pictured)
- Regular and Colored Paper
TEACHER NOTE: Keep in mind that you can have less or more “Optional Materials” than listed above. In our case, about ⅕ of the materials listed were not used by the kids. You can also add in bottles, Coke, and Mentos to add some science to the experiment (for an automatic volcano, for example). If you’re a teacher with CAD experience, you can even use 3D printed parts (which, in our case, we didn’t use since we didn’t have a 3D printer), and even allow the kids to design their own parts, like bases and attachments.
Adult Operated Tools:
- Hot Glue Gun
- Drill / Rotary Tool
- Soldering Iron (Optional for preparation use)
- Colored and Regular Pencils
After you’ve got the tools and materials ready, it would be a smart idea to start soldering the day before the activity. You will need to cut small pieces of wire, and solder them onto the ends of the motors and on/off switches (do this with electrical tape if you don’t have access to a soldering iron). Also, cut the wires of the battery holders so that the metal strip is exposed. When you’re done, you should have a set of motors, switches, and battery holders that have firm wires on both ends with at least 1 cm of the metal strip exposed on each wire (as pictured). This is to allow the kids to simply twist the desired wires together and strengthen the connection with electrical tape rather than having the wires soldered during the activity by an adult (having a soldering iron in the same classroom as kids poses a danger as the fumes are slightly toxic, and there's always the risk of getting a burn. So please avoid the use of a soldering iron in a classroom).
Next, use a chalkboard, regular board, or a smart board to draw a simple and correctly labeled circuit with a battery (+ and - sides), an on/off switch, and a motor, all of which are connected by lines representing wires. If you’re using more than one type of motor, make sure to also write down and draw the differences between the separate motors. This will give the kids a visual understanding of circuits and motors as you teach them during your lesson. The board I used can be seen in the picture above. Prior to the start of the activity, lay down all your materials on a table and prepare the tools. Since it would be dangerous to have certain tools near kids, we operated two rooms, one in which we kept the materials and safe tools (where the kids made their crafts), and another in which we kept the adult-operated tools (where the kids individually brought their components and described to the tool operators desired holes or cuts). You should now be fully prepared!
Step 6: Motor Craft (Ages 10 - 12): Action!
This STEM activity will consist of 4 steps; the lesson, planning, crafting, and results. Make sure you have an idea of how circuits work and what problems the kids may face as they work on their projects. In the lesson, you will teach about how circuits work and give information about the motor(s) that you use, like RPM, torque, size, etc. (make sure to explain what they mean as well!). Use the board you drew on from preparation to help in your explanations. Describe what combinations will and won’t work, how to correctly make connections, and answer any remaining questions. The lesson should take between 10-20 minutes.
After the lesson is the planning phase. Here, the kids will use provided pencils and paper to write down the materials they will use and plan & sketch their ideas. Tell them to focus on connections and steps to take in their projects. They should aim for as much detail as possible. Planning should take between 15-25 minutes.
Now is time for the most exciting step; crafting. Start off by providing the kids with a motor of their choice (1 to start with, maybe more later), an on/off switch, and a battery holder with batteries. Then, you can allow them to start collecting their materials, and either begin helping them with questions or operating the tools. There should be at least one teacher to go around and help out the kids, and another to operate the tools for a smoother and more convenient time, but just you by yourself is fine too (we had one adult teacher and one high school sophomore assistant who did the lesson and helped out the kids with their problems). Encourage innovative ideas and give the bright students some confidence because even a small and simple robot or an easy motored car takes effort and patience to make.
TEACHER NOTE: One great thing about this STEM activity is that you don’t have to be a computer science, engineering, science, or math teacher to be able to pull this off successfully! Even just 2 hours of research should be enough to allow you to help with the biggest problems these kids will face. Don’t feel intimidated if this isn’t you area of study.
After a table full of hot glue droppings, Popsicle stick pieces, cardboard and paper cuttings, table-scratches, and a mess of various other materials, most students should be finished with their projects. The crafting phase should take between 1 - 2 hours. Most if not all the kids should have a smile on their faces and feel proud of what they’ve accomplished; their first motor craft!
There will be some amazing and original, and some not too original ones. Whatever may be the case, I can assure you that this activity will allow kids to have a truly fun and productive time. The results will be astonishing! We had a total of 16 crafts that were successfully finished (4 not pictured), and I must say, the creativity of these kids never fails to amaze me! Some shout outs are the “skiing man” (replica skier that used a DC Gear Motor to move forward), the “box fan”, the “cow” (used a DC Motor to make vibrations and move), the “spinner”, and the “slapper” (used a DC Motor to spin a hand to softly slap someone!). This STEM activity is a great one to introduce kids to electrical and mechanical engineering, technology, and robotics. Although the preferred age group is 10-12, this can also be done with middle school students of ages 13 and 14.
Approximate Activity Cost: $75
Step 7: Thank You!
I hope that this Instructables can help you in your classroom. It's been a tough but fun adventure for me to picture and write out this tutorial, since this is the first one I've ever made! I encourage any teacher who replicates these activities to share their experience with me. Please contact me at email@example.com with any questions regarding any of these activities, and thank you for taking your time to read through this. Have a STEMmorous day!
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