Introduction: Strawbees in the Classroom or Makerspace

About: We're the spectrUM Discovery Area, a hands-on science museum in Missoula, MT. We have a physical museum located within the Missoula Public Library, but also create science kits, lead teacher professional devel…

This is part of a series of Instructables intended for teachers about educating students in the classroom around making and tinkering. For a full list of other Instructables see our collection or the .pdf Making and Tinkering Cookbook at the end of this Instructable. For more on the project itself and how our museum shares these activities with students and teachers, see this video on YouTube

Strawbees are a fantastic activity that foster creativity, engineering and design principals and really engage the sense of whimsy that many students bring to such activities. As one educator I work with put it, "It's like LEGOs for straws." The most simple building systems are usually the best!

This is a great activity to accompany other curriculum - whether it's designing a bridge to stress-test or recreating elements of a sci-fi novel for language arts, Strawbees lend themselves to many different subjects, or are fantastic as a standalone activity suitable for (almost) all ages.

Step 1: Tools and Materials Needed

At bare minimum you'll need:

  • Strawbees connectors - available for purchase directly through the manufacturer or on places like Amazon. The big education kit is definitely enough for a small school or library and more than enough for a classroom.
  • Straws - I know, using plastic straws is kinda terrible but we've not found any paper ones that are suitable for the connectors. Bonus is that the straws can be used again and again and again. Bendy 1/4" by 7" straws work the best, just don't get the jumbo variety
  • Construction paper
  • Scissors to cut straws and paper
  • Hole punch (nice for creating holes in paper to push the straws through)

Optional additional supplies:

  • You can purchase a die set from Strawbees directly that is useful if your school already has a die-cut machine. This allows you to create an infinite amount of the connectors from recycled plastic or thick cardboard, etc. For the price, it's almost worth it to purchase only this and make your own if you already have a die cut machine, and is much better for the environment to boot.
  • If you are making your own Strawbees, a stout pair of scissors is handy to cut up the plastic or paperboard
  • Recycled plastic or cardboard (food containers, large sheets of it from breweries or other industries, etc)
  • The Strawbees Pocketful of Ideas card deck is useful for kids who get stuck

Step 2: Start Connecting Strawbees to Straws!

Strawbees are very versatile in how you can connect them together. See the images above for instructions on ways to connect them to straws. Each connector can go into the end of a straw, or have a straw go through the hole in the middle, or both. The notch near the tip of each connector allows you to "lock in" another Strawbee using the hole in the middle of it if you slip it over the straw. This way you can either have moving joints for things like wind turbines or propellors or moveable dog ears, or static joints.

We like to encourage kids to get familiar with how the connectors work with each other before joining them together to create something. Encouraging either a theme for a classroom of kids or using the Inventor's Pack of cards is helpful for kids that get stuck without a direct prompt. This activity fosters a lot of collaboration between students, especially when creating large structures.

Step 3: Taking It Further

Strawbees are great on their own but things like cardboard, pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, string, pony beads, etc. are great to accompany them. There are even coding and robotics kits on their site that incorporate things like electronics and microprocessors to make robots that move which you can program. Or, experiment with things like the Micro:Bit or Arduino and servo motors to create your own.

The versatility of Strawbees to combine with other modular building sets or electronics, or just use them on their own is what makes them so fun! They have a suite of lesson plans, videos and professional development sessions on their website here. Guides like the .pdfs attached to this step are also available on their website for ideas and instructions on how to build specific creations.

Step 4: Explain, Expand and Evaluate

Have students share their creations with the class. Here are some questions you might ask:

Explain and Expand

  • How can you create different geometric shapes with the Strawbees?
  • What is the relationship between the angles of the connectors and the shapes they can create?
  • What would happen if you used paper straws or tubes made of paper sheets instead of plastic?

Evaluate - questions to ask during reflection or ideas to explore during the activity.

  • What other materials could you combine these with?
  • How could you combine different creations to create a story or scene?
  • What is the biggest thing you could build with the classroom set you have of Strawbees? How long might it take?
  • What were some challenges you encountered when making your creation?

See the .pdf of our Making and Tinkering Cookbook or download it here for more ideas and activities.