Blogger Amy Koester

Have a (Volcanic) Blast with STEM

Photo by Amy Koester.

If you had visited my library on the afternoon of our most recent school-age STEM program, you would have noticed a mass of people really excited about volcanoes. Volcanoes inspire enthusiastic reactions in children, and Volcano Science is a great way to get them involved in hands-on STEM activities. Here’s how we did Volcano Science; I hope you’ll replicate the program at your library!

First, we talked about the science. I like to open my STEM programs with a bit of informal learning in the form of great visuals. I projected the following websites onto the program room wall:

  • Volcano 101 from National Geographic — This 3-minute video offers a great introduction to what volcanoes are and how they work, accompanied by the terrific images for which NG is known.
  • Volcanic Violence from Why Files — I talked about two images on this page: the subduction zone illustration that shows how many volcanoes form; and the Ring of Fire illustration that shows where the majority of the world’s volcanoes are located.
  • U.S. Volcanoes and Current Activity Alerts map from the USGS — This fantastic resource offers real-time volcanic alerts from the USGS. The map is a great follow-up to the illustrated Ring of Fire map, and it offers an opportunity to talk about how the island of Hawaii is continually growing thanks to its volcano.

I also had slides that showed illustrations of gently-sloping shield volcanoes and taller, more conical stratovolcanoes; we talked about how volcanic eruptions might differ based on the shape of the volcano itself. We concluded this introduction with a bit of time for questions and children to share their favorite volcano facts.

Photo by Amy Koester.

Next came the hands-on STEM work. I set out two long tables with the supplies for building volanoes: a paper plate for the base, a prescription tube for the magma chamber (our friendly local pharmacist donated a few when my stash wasn’t quite enough), and dollar-store play dough for the volcanic structure itself. Children spent 15 minutes creating their volcanoes however they wanted. I walked around the room during our building time to encourage builders to think about how the shapes of their volcanoes might affect how they erupt.

We ended with the science in action. Before we erupted the first volcano, I reiterated that real volcanoes erupt due to combinations of heat and pressure. Ours, on the other hand, only simulate an eruption through the chemical reaction of baking soda with vinegar. That disclosure was fine with the children, so it was time for the mass eruptions to begin.

One by one, each volcano was placed in a clear plastic tub (to catch the “lava”–trust me, use a tub) in preparation for its eruption. Some children chose to add monopoly houses to the sides of their volcanoes to see if they’d be swept away. Each magma chamber received a heaping spoonful of baking soda and a squirt of dish soap (to add dramatic-looking bubbles), then we counted down to the addition of vinegar. There were plenty of cheers with every eruption. We also guessed and observed how the “lava” would flow from the different shapes of volcanoes. Our 20 minutes of eruptions were extremely high energy; children were making eruption predictions, counting down, and cheering the volcanic destruction with equal enthusiasm. You might say they were having a blast.

Photo by Amy Koester.

There were plenty of books on volcanoes and at-home science experiments available for check-out. It is important to me that every child who attends a program has an opportunity to take home a book that further extends program engagement. Our library has a ton of resources on volcanoes and similar “explosive” experiments, and plenty of families left the library with weekend plans for kitchen science. I call that an effective program.

Have you ever offered a volcano program at your library? What sorts of materials and resources would you use?


  1. Abby Johnson

    Another awesome STEM program! Keep ’em coming, Amy. 😀

  2. Kirsten Mortimer

    Thanks for this post, I love making volcanoes with my kids but wasn’t sure our library program–only 45 minutes–could handle the mess and time constraints. Your post made it sound possible. And it is! 22 second and third graders plus two teen volunteers and I did this today. Only problem? They were a bit sad they had to toss their gooey, messy volcano they’d spent time making! When I do it again, I will have extra vessels for the explosion to give them the option of keeping their volcano. Thanks!

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  4. Rebecca Robinson

    Hi, I was just wondering if you had the actual recipe for the volcanoes? Thank you!

    1. Amy Koester

      I don’t have a precise recipe I use, just drop some baking soda into the volcano and then pour in some vinegar.

  5. Janet Bagby

    Can I use your idea and directions in an activity booklet for a school project? This sounds awesome.

    1. Amy Koester

      By all means, Janet, please replicate to your heart’s content!

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