Introduction: STEM Based Extension Projects for Young Engineering Minds

About: Hey there! My name is Chris and I live in Massachusetts. I have been a teacher since 2006 and love the fact that I have the opportunity to bring real-world, hands-on skills to my students. I love learning new …

STEM, STEAM, coding, engineering design, there are definitely a lot of buzzwords zipping about the education world. Sadly, these words are often used as just that, buzzwords, and that is all. So often I have seen "STEM-based" projects that really are just arts and crafts projects with very little science, technology, engineering, or mathematic principals involved. Don't get me wrong, slime is cool and all but I think it's best that we stop grouping it into the STEM world. My students have always shown a desire to build things and use tools. Anytime I take out a Dremel, drill, hand saw, or even hammer many of them get extraordinarily excited and say "You're going to let us use tools? My parents never let me use tools." Now, I don't know how true that is, but nonetheless they get excited when the tools are brought out for a project.

I typically do more hands-on, project-based learning than any other form of education throughout the school year. Although, I will sometimes front load the project with information pertaining to the curriculum, there are more times than not that I will simply give the kids a few parameters and then let them loose. The problem with this style of teaching is that I often have multiple classes with upwards of 30 kids in a class. Thirty 7th grade students and sharp tools can be problematic under the right (or wrong) conditions. After a project that really would engage the students (like building miniature electromagnetic motors) I would a fair number of students who would want to go a step further or build a larger model, or even install it into a car. With varied talents, abilities, efforts, and overall educational prowess, differentiating for projects like this can become impossible. That, coupled with state required standards, standardized tests, and district wide initiatives leaves very little bonus time to extend projects. But, how could I stifle interest in engineering and design?

What I decided to do is create a set of projects that would allow students to take the designing and building to their home so that they can work at their own pace and explore the lessons that most interest them. I call these projects very simply "extension projects" and have a number of classroom incentives that accompany them. I created 14 of these projects and they span the gamut of science and engineering. The way I incentivize the projects is by:

1 - Providing extra credit for completed projects

2 - Allowing students to communicate their completed work with their peers in the classroom

3 - Providing key components for their projects (wiring, motors, propeller blades, etc...)

4 - Giving end of the year awards out to any students who complete a certain number of the projects

I do not provide extra credit in any other form and this system has worked for the past eight years with no problem. I teach two separate years of science, sixth grade and seventh grade. I will often have kids that cycle through two years in my classroom so I made a total of 14 projects so that the students could pick seven out during each year if they wanted to do them all. I have an open date for the projects where students decide on which project they want to do, complete the necessary research for the project, get the project approved during a short meeting with me, and finally receive supplies that I can provide them with. The project then has a closing date where the student has to turn in their final form of communication and, if necessary, the physical project. There are three forms of communication I allow the students to use for the projects:

1 - Create an instructional Youtube video that shows the process from design, to building, to testing the project.

2 - Create an Instructable that clearly shows the entire design, build, and testing procedures.

3 - Create a graphic poster that clearly shows the entire building process and testing of the project.

I like providing choices since each student has their specific skills and abilities, and not all kids like to create a video or create something seen by anyone on the internet. The one form of communication I do not allow are slideshows. No offense, but they are often pretty boring and quickly lose the interest of the class if they are not done correctly. I typically will spend a class period at the start of the year discussing how the extension projects work and how to use Youtube to publish videos (after getting parent consent) and helping kids get logged into Instructables through our school Google accounts. We talk about what makes a good Instructable, how to upload pictures, and how to use the rubric I provide to insure all parts are included.

What I am providing here are the links to all fourteen of the extension projects I have designed along with some examples of how students have communicated their efforts. Some of these are Youtube videos and some are Instructables. I will provide a few examples of what the graphic posters look like too. My hope is that this will inspire more teachers, parents, and students to get kids working with tools and building awesome stuff!

Just as a reference please check out my website for the complete list of projects.

Step 1: Getting Organized

One of the most important things about doing these projects is that you have to stay extremely organized throughout the year for both your own sake and for your student's sake. I typically have 100 to 120 students in a school year and have had upwards of fifteen kids complete a project at one time. With fourteen different projects and fifteen kids completing them it could become a logistical nightmare. What I have done to prevent this is creating a similar pattern with all of the projects. The rubrics, initial information, design process, and overall format are very similar throughout. I post all fourteen projects on to my website so the kids can peruse them and find ones they are interested in. Once a project "opens" they have a specific amount of time to bring in their plans and research to get approval (usually about 2 weeks). I created a simple spreadsheet to keep track of each student's project for each opening date. I have seven total opening dates throughout the school year and I give the kids the challenge to complete as many as they can up to seven. Any students who complete six or seven projects is awarded at the end of the year. Typically I get the PTO to help out with a small token of appreciation for the scientific efforts. In years past I have purchased infrared thermometers, mirascopes, LED pocket microscopes, and the like, which is also a good incentive for the kids to do the projects. I mark all of their completed projects on their license to learn cards that we make at the beginning of the year. This lets the student see their own progress and also shows the progress to their peers, hopefully encouraging a few of them to jump in on the fun.

Each project is broken into the same parts, which keeps things consistent for both your sake and the student's, they are as follows:

1 - Introduction of the project with some basic, but important information about this specific project along with details about the research necessary for the project.

2 - A design section so that the student can clearly identify what the project will look like, what tools will be necessary, what skills are needed, and how they expect the project to work.

3 - A section for your approval signature after you review the work with the student to problem solve and troubleshoot any areas you expect them to encounter.

4 - An explanation of what they are expected to record while building the project and how they plan on communicating the images / videos.

5 - A rubric for each of the three forms of communication. I use a grading system I created that uses a speedometer and a number of other unique factors. I use this same grading system for all assignments throughout the year so they are very used to the set up.

That's about it, let's get on to the projects! For each project I will first post a link to the document I have created along with some examples of previously completed projects.

Step 2: Extension Project #1 - Build Something Hydraulic or Pneumatic!

Click this link for the details on the project --> Build something hydraulic or pneumatic!

This project is a blast! I provide the kids with vinyl tubing and syringes (no needles of course) to make hydraulic and pneumatic machines. We have had draw bridges, money vaults, scissor jacks, door openers, and so many other creative things come from this project. You can take a look at this hydraulic lift posted on Instructables by one of my students last year. Also, check out the videos above for more examples.

Step 3: Extension Project #2 - Build a Musical Instrument

Click this link to see the project --> Build a musical instrument

I'll attribute a lot of this project to my two kids. They both love working down in my woodshop with me and wanted to build a harp. We put something together with scrap wood and some old guitar strings and actually produced something that sounded really cool. I thought that it would be a great project for my students too. Check out these Instructables to see some of the awesome projects my students have made:


Paper tube xylophone

Diddley Bow

Pan Pipes

Also, check out the videos up above to even more projects.

Step 4: Extension Project #3 - Build an Electromagnetic Motor

Check out this link for project details --> Build an electromagnetic motor

This is a great project for any student. It requires little to no tools and you can provide the majority of the materials for the project (magnet, copper wire, paper clips, etc...). Most students who only do one project during the year will do this project in lieu of the others. Some of the kids get pretty creative with how they put everything together too, which keeps it interesting. Take a look at this Instructable posted by a couple of my students. Also check out the videos posted above.

Step 5: Extension Project #4 - Build a Solar Oven

Check out the details of this HOT project here --> Build a solar oven

I love this project! It's so satisfying to cook something with the sun and a cardboard box, especially when you get up to temperatures that you would think would ignite the box into a blazing mass. The kids love this project too and since you can use cardboard as the main building component it is an easy one for anyone to do. We have a place near us that creates rolls of sticky backed mylar and other reflective materials. They usually donate the offcuts to schools and so we have a number of massive rolls of highly reflective sticky backed paper from Flexcon sitting in our closet... what better thing to use to make a solar oven? Take a look at these instructables made by a few of my students:

Box Oven

Box Oven #2

Pizza Box Oven

And check out the videos up above, they are fantastic!

Step 6: Extension Project #5 - Re-purpose a Bike Inner Tube

Check out the full dish at this link --> Re-purpose a bike inner tube

I run a mountain biking team at my school and one thing that always irked me was the way we go through tubes when there had to be some use to their flexible, taurus shape. I thought I would put my kids to the task and I challenged them to create anything useful from the store of old tubes I had piled up. The results were not only fun but some of them really had some significant use to them. That is engineering and design at its finest! Check out a couple of instructables they created and the videos they made too:

Non-Slip Socks

Guitar Strap

Step 7: Extension Project #6 - Build a Siege Engine / Launcher

Check out all of the details on this project here --> Build a siege engine / launcher

I start off the school year with a catapult project that helps introduce students to my teaching style along with some of the basic skills they will learn throughout the year; graphing, data collection, using quantitative evidence, making inferences, and basic design principles. I decided to make an extension project that continued on this initial project since kids showed so much interest in the entire thing. I have had one student make an Instructable for this one and also a recent Youtube video that another student created this year.

Step 8: Extension Project #7 - Independent Study

Check out the details for this project here --> Independent Study

There are so many times that kids come up to me with an idea that I have yet to create an extension project for. These projects have been nearly a decade in the making, so they have taken quite a lot of time to fine tune for my classes. With this said, it is difficult to come up with new ones at the drop of the hat... but then again there is no reason to stifle student creativity. This is why I created an independent study extension project that gives the students the choice to solve a number of engineering dilemmas or come up with their own. This project challenges the students to build a bridge, create a waterwheel, or even make a boat. Each has certain parameters that need to be met to help solve a problem. Alternatively, they can come up with their own problem and solution. There have only been a few kids who have gone the latter avenue and I hope to encourage more of them in the future.

A number of students made instructables for this project, check them out here:

Trestle bridge

Rubber band boat

Popsicle boat

Step 9: Extension Project #8 - Build an Ecosystem in a Bottle

Check out this link for the full details on this project --> Build an ecosystem in a bottle

This project was created because a number of students expressed interest in closed ecosystems a few years ago. I thought that it would be cool to design an extension project catered to their interests and the project has been completed by a number of students over the past few years. The basic premise is that the students design a closed ecosystem using a soda bottle. Most of the kids don't actually go for the completely closed ecosystem but instead have a semi-closed system with a bottle cap only loosely twisted on. Check out some of the examples students completed here on Instructables:

Duct Taped Ecosystem

Closed system in a bottle

Vertical and Horizontal closed system

Partially open aquaponics

Step 10: Extension Project #9 - Build a Cell Model

Click this link for all the details on this project --> Build a Cell Model

A tried and true project and for the kid that wants to build something but doesn't have the know-how to use certain tools or access to the tools this is a perfect project. I have been doing multiple iterations of this project for about ten years and decided that it was actually best formatted for an at home project instead of doing it in the classroom. This project is usually one that students will gravitate towards if they avoided the other projects and then they will sometimes get some encouragement from its completion to do other, more complex, extension projects. I haven't had any students try out the Youtube video for this project but did have a young lady do an Instructable very recently on this project. You can check it out here.

Step 11: Extension Project #10 - Make a Sundial

Check out this link for all of the details on this project --> Make a sundial

This is probably the most completed extension project out of all of them. It is a pretty simple project and leaves a lot of room for basic design and some creativity. I particularly love to use this project to tie in our discussions in class about Earth's rotation, seasons, and other astronomical phenomena tied to our sun. We will usually bring out the sundials students make and test them for accuracy and have a full on discussion about seasonal change here in Massachusetts. Check out this fantastic instructable from one of my students this year and the video posted above from a past student of mine.

Step 12: Extension Project #11 - Using Evidence and Exploring Science

Check out all of the details here --> Using evidence and exploring science

I created this project because I wanted my students to really take ownership of the CER (claim, evidence, reasoning) format we use in our school. One of the things most of my students have struggled with over the years is both collecting the evidence and then effectively using it to support a claim. This project allows the students to investigate one of three basic claims through the scientific process. The students design an experiment, collect quantitative data, make sense of the data, and then communicate the results to the public. As of this moment I have only had students complete this project via poster so I do not have Instructables or videos to share, sorry!

Step 13: Extension Project #11 - Build a Weather Station

Check out the link for details on this project --> Build a weather station

This is a relatively older project that I resurrected just last year. We used to build weather stations in class to discuss weather patterns and basic meteorological facts but then the standards changed on me and that unit was dropped. I thought that the project could easily be adapted to the extension projects, so I edited the entire project to fit it into the system. To be honest, there have not been too many students interested in this project and to date there has not been one student to complete the project. I think that I will have to talk it up for next year and possibly discuss some additional options with my students to see what their thoughts are.

Step 14: Extension Projects #13 and #14 - Build a Electric Race Car or Build a Rubber Band Powered Airplane

The final two projects are the grand finale projects saved for the very end of the school year. Up to this point the students could pick from the twelve previous projects but these final two projects are saved for the seventh and final project of the school year. I ended up purchasing a couple hundred wheels and axels from Amazon along with about 20 three volt DC motors and some basic pos/neg wire for the electric car. I purchased a few bags of various sized rubber bands and propeller blades for the rubber band airplane.

Click on this link to view the electric race car extension project

Click on this link to view the rubber band powered airplane extension project

These projects usually come right at the end of the school year so I have only had the really committed students complete them (they are not usually scrambling for extra credit at the end of the year with summer just in the wings, if you know what I mean).

Check out the Instructables made by a number of my students:

Small electric car

Medium electric car

Cardboard electric car

Flashlight electric car

Step 15: Conclusion

As I mentioned earlier, I have been doing many of these projects for the past ten years. Many of my incoming students are brothers and sisters to past students and they always mention their memories of their siblings working on the projects and testing them with them. I love seeing kids designing, building, and testing and these projects have really added so much to my classroom over the years. I hope that you get the chance to incorporate them into your classroom or just at home with your own children. Build on!!

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