Cheap and Easy STEM Programs

It’s no secret that I love doing STEM programs. They’re educational, a bit chaotic, and fun. If you fear facilitating STEM programs, consider this: remember when science was awesome? Before it got all difficult and filled with math that still gives you (read: me) panic attacks? When you’re a kid, everything is new and super cool because you’re learning how the world works. Frankly, sometimes science seems like magic–only better because it’s real. So, you can take that natural curiosity of theirs and use it to explore science alongside them. You don’t need to be an expert; just admit you don’t know something and learn with them as you go.

Ahem. Pardon my science-y soap boxing.

This month, I’m sharing my Top 5 Inexpensive STEM Programs:

  1. Catapults. In my program, 4th-6th graders learned a bit about physics, watched educational videos about how medieval “siege engines” worked, and built two types of catapults–handheld and box-style. Handheld catapults can be made in 5-10 minutes with craft sticks, rubber bands, and a plastic spoon. Box-style catapults use shoe boxes (donated by staff), pencils, rubber bands, duct tape, and a plastic spoon. At the end, I set up a fort, and everyone got to launch big, fuzzy pom poms at stuffed animal targets. How fun is that?
  2. DIY Roller Coasters. This sounds complicated, but is possibly the simplest program you’ll ever run. Get a whole bunch of pipe insulation tubing and cut it in half lengthwise. Gather masking tape, marbles, and whatever you have lying around that kids might use to prop up the tubes (plastic cups, building blocks, chairs, etc). Tell the kids about potential and kinetic energy and get them thinking about how roller coasters are designed. Divide them into teams and have them build a roller coaster. You might think this would get boring fast. Trust me, it doesn’t. They will keep testing and rebuilding for hours if you let them.
  3. Egg Drop. You may sense a theme here, so I’ll just say it: free-building programs are the best. I mean the type of program where you set out a bunch of materials and say, “Build something that does ___, you have 45 minutes” and then just let them go bananas. Such is the egg drop challenge. You can give as many or as few materials as you like (obviously, more cushioning materials or pre-made containers make it easier). The only thing you need to do in advance is figure out what you’ll drop the devices from and how. The first time I did this, I used a 12-foot ladder and dropped each device myself. The second time, I took a hint from Amy Koester and asked a tree trimming company to come out with their huge bucket truck to do the drop for us. Hot tip: Keep that part a surprise until the kids walk outside for the drop. They get so excited that it’s like they just found out that they’re on TV.
  4. Computer Programming Unplugged. No tech budget? No problem! Kids can learn the fundamentals of coding with materials you probably already have in your supply closet. I like to first demonstrate how computers ‘think’ by using a stackable wood hamburger puzzle to do Computer Science Unplugged’s “Harold the Robot” activity. The kids are then split into pairs to “write code” to build plastic cup structures per Thinkersmith’s “My Robotic Friends” lesson. With younger elementary-aged kids, we make binary bracelets out of their initials using two colors of pony beads and yarn. With older kids, I create a tape maze on the floor and take the “My Robotic Friends” lesson above to a higher level by asking them to “code” each other through the maze. Cups, paper, pencils, yarn, and pony beads? This is a non-tech tech program that any budget can handle.
  5. Boat Building. Yes, this is another free-building program. But just think about how much kids love building stuff and how much they love playing in water. This program has everything! I start by explaining density and buoyancy. We predict which items (such as chalk, golf balls, and oranges) will sink or float. They are then challenged to build a boat out of a single sheet of aluminum foil and see how many pennies it will hold. Afterward use a bunch of lightweight materials (balloons, pool noodle pieces, sheets of foam, craft sticks, etc) to make any type of boat they want. For testing boats, you can put mixing bowls of water at every table, buckets of water out on the floor, or whatever works best for you. Helpful hint: bring ALL the towels to this program.

There’s a lot of messy fun to be had in the name of science–and what better place for kids to do that than the library? So, go forth and get your science on!

Heather Thompson is the Youth Services Programming Librarian at the Kenosha Public Library.

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