Blogger Chelsey Roos

STEAM Programs for the Scientifically Uncertain

I love doing STEAM programs, but I have never been a science person. Don’t get me wrong – I like certain elements of science. But like anyone, I have my strengths and my weaknesses, and explaining elementary level physics or chemistry is definitely not a strength of mine. I’m also not a great instruction follower, and science experiments often have very specific instructions. Paper circuits? I have no idea why the battery only works one way despite having read an explanation approximately one thousand times. Growing crystals? I’m too impatient for that kind of work. Simple machines? To me, they are Deeply Complicated machines. There are many places online to find great STEAM projects planned by experts, but if you’d like some so-simple-they-cannot-go-wrong STEAM projects, I’m here for you.

I have found that for me and for the families I work with, STEAM programs work best if there are very few instructions to follow and as much open-ended exploration as possible. Though we do learn some traditional science, math, and engineering concepts (art is the easy part!), we learn a lot about problem solving, trial and error, and frustration tolerance. If that also sounds like your style, here are five of my favorite STEAM programs that don’t require deep scientific know-how or precise instructions to follow. Please note these are all pre-COVID programs for me – some can be done virtually, as a grab-and-go kit, or just saved for later if you are not currently doing in-person programs.

5 STEAM Programs for the Scientifically Challenged

1. DIY Puzzles

A handmade puzzle of Mo Willem's Elephant and Piggie characters.
I learned a valuable lesson on this day about not making your example look better than what a child can do.
  • What you need: Blank puzzles, drawing supplies. You can buy blank puzzles in craft stores, party stores, or big box online retailers for about $0.50 each. If your library has store-bought puzzles you can also put those out for kids to solve.
  • The instructions: Draw or decorate your puzzle any way you want. Encourage kids to try solving each other’s puzzles once they are done designing. Decorate your puzzle first, then take it apart, not the other way around. 
  • What do we learn?: Problem solving skills, visual discernment, and pattern recognition. 

2. Earthquake Adventures

A child shakes a pan of Jello with a little structure made of toothpicks on top.
Shake shake shake.

Note: This program uses food as a construction material. For many communities, using food as a play item may not be appropriate or respectful. I’m taking suggestions for non-food gelatin replacements if you’ve got them!

  • What you need: a gelatin dessert product made in a cake pan or similar, clear plastic wrap, and construction materials. You can use just a few things, like toothpicks and clay, or a large variety like craft sticks, tape, pipe cleaners, paper, yarn, and anything else you want to dig out and play with. Make a demo structure (not a good one!) that you can fall apart easily when shaken.
  • The instructions: Make your Gelatin Earth ahead of time. Once it’s fully set, cover it with plastic wrap to keep things from getting sticky. I ask kids what they think makes a building stay strong during an earthquake, and we might talk about testing the strength of different shapes like triangles and squares. I put my demo on our Gelatin Earth and shake it until it collapses. Have kids take turns testing out their buildings on the Gelatin Earth and let them shake away and see what happens.
  • What do we learn?: Engineering issues like the pros and cons of building with different shapes and sizes, trial and error, and perseverance. You can also couple this with a read-aloud about earthquakes, or a presentation on seismology.

3. The Great Newspaper Tower Challenge

  • What you need: newspapers (some as is and some sheets rolled up into tight tubes), painter’s tape, tall ceilings or outdoor space, and volunteers to help you roll up an outrageous number of newspapers
  • The Instructions: The mission is to build the tallest tower out of newspaper and tape. The best way to do this is to use newspaper rolled up into tight tubes, but most kids under the age of about 10 have a very hard time with the fine motor skills required to roll up newspaper that way, so there will be less frustration if you’re able to pre-roll a bunch. You are free to limit the number of materials (how big can you build with just 15 sheets of newspaper and one foot of tape?) but I tend to let them go nuts on unlimited supply.
  • What do we learn?: More engineering skills, frustration tolerance, and team work. If you want more, you can include a read-aloud about a famous building like the Eiffel tower.

4. Penguin Parachute Drop

A child drops a handmade parachute onto a large piece of paper with a hand-drawn iceberg.
Climbing on furniture makes everything better.
  • What you need: Parachute making supplies (like paper, coffee filters, yarn, tape, scissors) and decorating supplies. I also include wildcard materials like aluminum foil, bubble wrap, tissue paper, cardboard, and anything else we have kicking around, but you don’t need these extras. You also want a parachute target (a bullseye on a large piece of paper or cardboard, in the shape of an iceberg in this case), and parachute passengers (I have used tiny erasers shaped like penguins, but you can also use anything with a bit of weight to it like a bolt, a glue stick, or a board game piece).
  • The Instructions: Talk to kids briefly about what a parachute does and how one works. Emphasize that this is a project where we probably won’t make a perfect parachute the first time. Encourage them to try, observe, make design changes, and try again. Whenever a kid has a parachute ready to try, have them step up to the bullseye and drop their parachute (I let them climb up on a stool to do this, but age and sturdiness of available stools will be a factor). After everyone has done at least one try, I usually stop the group to demonstrate the benefit of cutting a slit in the top of the parachute to let air pass through, and we talk briefly about aerodynamics before they try some more ideas.
  • What do we learn?: Airflow, balance, gravity, the design process.

5. Dinosaur Sink or Swim

Plastic dinosaur toys ride two small handmade boats in a basin of water.
The Good H.M.S. Dinosaur
  • What you need: A large container of water (I use big plastic storage bins), tarps and table covers if you are worried about water spillage, an assortment of boat building materials (use what you have, but I have used craft sticks, tape, glue, pipe cleaners, straws, aluminum foil, plastic wrap, paper, cardboard, ribbon, corks, coffee filters, and anything else I can find in the back of the children’s closet or in the recycling), and boat passengers (I use dinosaurs because we have dinosaurs, but any toys or game pieces you have a decent amount of is just as good).
  • The Instructions: Build a boat that will hold the most dinosaurs safely out to sea. I usually skip any further instructions and let the kids get straight to building, then talk to them one on one as they start to encounter building problems or sinking ships.
  • What do we learn?: Buoyancy, balance, and that there is a reason most boats are not built out of craft sticks.

What is your favorite No Expertise Required STEAM project?

Blog author Chelsey Roos, white, bespectacled, and sort of smiling.

Today’s blogger is Chelsey Roos. Chelsey has been a member of ALSC’s Advocacy and Legislation committee, and is a Children’s Librarian for Santa Clara County Library. All photographs in this post were taken by the author.

This blog relates to ALSC Core Competencies of III. Programming Skills.

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