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Inexpensive STEM Activities for around the house

Updated: Jan 30


First, I want to thank and acknowledge all the passionate educators and parents alike for providing wonderful STEM activities for students and children at home during these uncertain times. I applaud all those for creating and sharing such wonderful materials! As a former educator, I have the utmost respect for teachers and parents who have provided resources for the many who don’t have the access or opportunity to create these.


As much as I would like to leverage the opportunity to use these resources for my own child, the expectation is near impossible. I have a three-year-old son and an expectant wife who works as a nurse on the front lines of this pandemic and can not stay home; therefore, our son’s education and well-being have fallen directly in my lap. And like many of you, having similar situations in which you are working from home, expected to continue the usual forty-hour work weeks while physically and emotionally providing for the family, it seems to have left an unsustainable weight upon our shoulders. 


Being a former educator, I face many moral and internal dilemmas about my son’s education over the next few weeks or even months. How do we find balance when we're expected to cook healthy meals, clean up, get children down for a nap, and take care of everyone’s bodily and hygienic needs all within the “eight-hour” workday? 


It’s a stressful time to find any balance or structure. This is a whole new situation for everyone and is not normal, so we can’t expect our workday to be the same. We need to do what we can to stay sane and afloat as we are all in this together. More often than not, I have had virtual meetings where my toddler interrupts and screams demands upon me, wants to say hello, or just needs some cuddle time. I’m happy to say, no one has yet shown any anger or annoyance because I have continued to make parenting a priority during these times. I feel these are the instances where we can really give insight to who we are, how we connect and build even stronger relationships. We are all human, and we are all going through this experience together. The more of ourselves we show, the better we communicate, the more we understand and the less we feel isolated. We need to find strength in ourselves, our community, and maintain our passion for pushing forward. 


Even if I feel overwhelmed during this time, I still have a duty as a parent and educator for my child. Finding time is always difficult, but the impact of these activities will last much longer than just the length of the experience. So as we dive headfirst into our current global situation, I’ve compiled a short list of manageable and realistic STEM activities for the young hooligans we care for with limited materials in our quarantined spaces.  


 

01. Magic Strips
A simple first lesson in the mathematical field called topology, which is all about the shapes of things.

Supplies

  • 8”x11” Paper

  • Tape

  • Scissors


How to

  1. Mark the paper so that the child can cut the paper into three lengthwise strips. Folding into thirds may help. 

  2. After the child has cut the paper, ask them to create a hoop out of one strip of paper, taping the ends together. 

  3. For another, twist one end before taping the ends together. 

  4. For the third, twist the end twice before taping the ends together. 

  5. Ask the child what he or she thinks will happen when they cut each of the hoops in two down the middle. Now, ask the child to cut to find out. The simple loop is cut into two separate loops. The single twist loop, once cut in half, becomes a single larger loop with a twist in it. The double twist loop


What’s Happening 


The single twist loop is known as the Mobius Strip after a 19th-Century German mathematician. The interesting thing about the Mobius Strip is that it only has one side and one edge (confused? Try running your finger around the edge). You’ll notice you will have to go around the loop twice to get back to where you started.


 

02. Color from Nowhere
Understanding simple solutions and basic chemistry

Supplies

  • Water

  • Food coloring

  • Clear glass or plastic jars with lids - one for each different color

  • Cotton swabs


How to

  1. Fill all the jars with water, then put a few drops of food coloring on the inside of each lid. Be sure to use a different color for each bottle. 

  2. Smear the drops on the lid with the cotton swab to prevent any dye dripping into the water. 

  3. Put the lids back on. The bottles should look as if there is only water in them. 

  4. Once your child shakes the bottle, if by magic, the water becomes colored. 


What’s Happening


See if your child can explain this, or if they can trick another family member into thinking they have magic powers. 


Try mixing the different colors, (primary and secondary colors) and see what happens


Try adding a salt water mixture to the arsenal; see the dye and water separate!

Add oil to another glass and witness how density works! 


 

03. Invisible Fire Extinguisher
How carbon dioxide gas puts out flames and when you need to use it.

Supplies

  • A cup of vinegar 

  • Baking soda

  • Two tall glasses

  • A row of tea light candles


How to

  1. Light the tea light candles

  2. Fill one glass with vinegar, about one inch

  3. Add a heaping tablespoon of baking soda - it will fizz

  4. Tip the glass as if to pour the liquid into the other glass - but don't actually let any of the fizzing liquid pour out. There's something coming out, gas!

  5. “Pour” the apparently empty glass over the row of candles. They will extinguish like magic!


What’s Happening


You’ve heard of fighting fire with water, but did you know that gases also have the power to douse flames? A gas can smother a blaze by creating a barrier between burning fuel and nearby air. Fire needs three things to burn: fuel, energy (heat), and oxygen. Take away any of these, and the combustion reaction can’t go on. Carbon dioxide gas is denser than air, so it sits nicely in a container and falls down like water when poured out. It’s also non-flammable, so it smothers burning fuel.


 

04. Build a Rollercoaster
Learn slope, engineering, angles, velocity, force and motion

Supplies

  • Toilet paper and paper towel tubes, or other pieces of cardboard

  • Popsicle sticks

  • Tape

  • Marble or ping-pong ball


How to

  1. Give all the materials to your child and have them build! 

  2. Extension: Have them build a loop or a jump.

  3. Extension: Have them create a marketing poster for their rollercoaster and pitch their coaster for the family to try out, or even build their own! 


 

05. Paper Plate Marble Maze
Learn engineering, gravity, force and motion

Supplies

  • Paper plates (The ones with high edges work best)

  • Scissors

  • Construction paper or cereal boxes, or even cotton balls

  • Tape or glue

  • Markers

  • Marbles


How to

  1. First, issue the challenge. The goal of this project is to get a maze made that fits a marble, contained inside a paper plate, that works completely, and doesn’t break when playing with it. Kids will have to use quite a few skills to get this design to work.

  2. Supply your kids with a variety of materials. You might challenge each kid to use a different material for greater creativity.

  3. Wait until everyone’s design is dry, then test them out.

  4. Which designs worked best? Which designs were not as effective? What were the best parts and worst parts of each design? How could the kids improve on the designs?


What's Happening

Kids learn elements of the design process, such as the selection of the right materials for the task, making sure the design is precise, trying out multiple designs, and testing to make sure it works properly. In our design, we wanted to be able to race two balls through the maze similar to a pinball machine. The kids soon found out it's tricky to get two designs to work in the same place.


 

Activity Source: The Dad Lab - Sergei Urban 

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