Saturday, January 28, 2023

S-T-E-M is a Four-Letter Word! -Part 3, Program Ideas


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In Part 1 of this series I cautioned against the over-emphasis of Technology, particularly coding, and advocated for the value and importance of basic Science, Math, and Engineering in STEM programming. In Part 2, I gave some general tips and things to consider, ways to incorporate STEM elements in other programming, a few resources for ideas, and a brief discussion of STEM vs. STEAM vs. STREAM. 

To further encourage thinking and programming more broadly across the STEM fields, I'm going to throw out some program ideas and suggestions for each category, following the order of the original "SMET" acronym. While it isn't as catchy as "STEM", "SMET" actually makes more sense because it reflects how the four disciplines relate to and build on each other: basic Science and Math can stand alone, though there is definite overlap; Engineering is the application of Math and Science; and with Engineering you create Technology. Many of these are programs or activities I have done, and will link to the appropriate posts with more details where applicable.

I will freely admit that I am a bit biased towards basic science and will have a lot more suggestions for this area, for a few reasons: (1) Science was always my first love, and I was trained to be a science educator and researcher; (2) I feel that basic science has become extremely neglected in the educational system; (3) basic science experiments are fun, engaging, and often very inexpensive, and (4) there are so many different subjects and activities to explore! Here are just a few tips and suggestions to get you thinking:

  • Chemistry - Easiest, numerous activities, arguably most fun
    • Baking soda and vinegar are your best friends, especially if you have a tight budget. They are cheap (especially if bought in bulk from someplace like Sam's or Cosco), there are dozens of ways to use this simple acid-base reaction, and kids never get tired of it.
      • Volcanoes - add dish soap and food coloring
      • Boats/Torpedos - jet propulsion
      • Blowing up balloons
      • Puking Pumpkins - like a volcano, but using a jack o'lantern
      • Bubbling "champagne" flutes for Noon Year's Eve (just add confetti)
      • Bubbling "pots of gold (confetti)" for St. Patrick's Day
      • Excavating "treasure" encased in baking soda paste
      • And more!
    • Elephant's Toothpaste - can be very dramatic
    • Freezing Point Depression - interaction of salt and ice to cause temperature drop
    • Slime - But ONLY counts as STEM if you actually talk about the science! What are polymers, what is actually happening when the borax (and that is what you're using, whether it's in the form of contact solution, liquid starch, laundry detergent, or a solution made from borax powder). Not down to the atomic level, but at least some concept that the glue is made up of long, stringy molecules and the borax connects them together so they are no longer able to slip and slide around.
    • Dry Ice - Not exactly cheap, but some places will donate, and SO fun to play with!
    • Secret Messages - revealed by chemical reaction

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  • Biology/Biochemistry - Can be more challenging to find biology activities that can be completed in the course of 1 hour program.
    • Germs - the pandemic revealed how little the average person understands about germs, disease, and how they spread.
    • Dissecting Owl Pellets - Kids LOVE this! Be sure to include information about owl habitat, digestive system, etc.
    • Natural pH Indicators - extract from red cabbage or flower petals.
    • DNA extraction - surprisingly easy
    • Worms/composting
    • Community Garden
    • Nature Walks - record observations, flora and fauna in your community
    • Insects  
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  • Physics - light, sound, circuits, space, movement 
  • Earth Science - weather, geology, oceanography, etc
    • Paleontology
      • Simulated trace fossils with salt dough
      • Plaster casts of footprints & other impressions
      • Borrow fossil kits from nearby museum
      • Invite local collectors to share their fossils (vet them to be sure they know what they're talking about though!!)
      • Invite geologist/paleontologist from museum, college, or university
    • Wind/Air Flow 

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  • Cooking - yes, culinary science is really a science, but ONLY if you allow kids to measure ingredients themselves (accurate measurement is an important science skill!), and discuss the science going on
    • Yeast fermentation used to make bread rise
    • Freezing point depression to make ice cream
    • Crystallization to make rock candy, fudge, other candies
    • Boiling point elevation/freezing depression by adding salt/sugar
    • Pickling/salt curing to preserve foods
I'm going to stop here, though this is still just a small sampling of ideas. I could go on and on with ideas for basic science since it includes such a wide range of subjects and activities, and obviously it is my favorite, and my strongest area. But I firmly believe it is the easiest way to hook kids; they love it when you mix two things together and something happens!

One caveat - In order to truthfully call something a Science activity, you have to be sure you are actually talking about some scientific process involved, even if at a simplified level, and you are careful to be sure you are providing accurate information (no 4- or 8- pointed snowflakes, no penguins hanging out with polar bears), and the kids are doing as much hands-on as possible, including measuring.

Math is probably one of the more difficult disciplines to design a full program around, at least a fun, engaging one, particularly for older kids. I haven't personally ever done strictly mathematical program, but I do incorporate activities using math in many different programs. Here's a list of some mathematical activities that may be part of a science, storytime, or life skills program:
  • Counting
  • Measuring - ingredients for a science experiment or cooking program
  • Estimating
  • Calculating
  • Sorting/Grouping - this is both a science and math activity
  • Graphing - results of a vote, scientific data, etc.
  • Patterns - also both a science and math activity
  • Tangrams and other activities involving shapes
  • Cryptography - using secret codes and math equations to reveal a secret message
  • Dream House - designing 2D floor plans, figuring out furniture arrangement
  • Financial Life Skills
    • Learning to count money, recognize coins & amounts
    • Budgeting
    • Grocery Shopping with a Fixed Budget
    • Learning to do taxes
    • Learning about loans, credit cards, interest rates, etc.
    • Bookkeeping

Engineering - applying math and science to design & produce a desired result
  • Building Challenges - towers, bridges, cars, open-ended
    • Commercial building sets - Magnatiles, Lego, Kinex, Keva, etc., many options
    • Everyday items - toothpicks, craft sticks, cardboard tubes, etc.
    • Fairy Tale STEM
    • Unusual materials, such as dry spaghetti & marshmallows, clothespins & binder clips
  • Marble Runs
  • Rube Goldberg machines
  • Craft stick catapults
  • Gingerbread Houses (yes, this can be done as a STEM/STEAM program!)
  • Water filtration
  • Egg Drop Challenge
  • Paper Airplanes
  • Any activity where you design X to do Y!
Technology  - a handful of ideas that do not involve coding. Many of these do require special equipment you may or may not have in your makerspace, but think beyond computers and coding; consider various types of low-tech or learning how to apply tech:
  • Doodlebots - simple 'robots' that create art
  • Sewing - learn to use a sewing machine, various simple sewing projects
  • 3-D printing - not just to make cutsy little tchotchkes to put on your desk, but to serve a purpose, such as to replace a lost game piece, broken parts, etc.
  • Graphic Arts - use software to design and print signs or banners
  • Laser Cutter - various projects to learn to use a laser cutter for different applications
  • Cricut - learn to use the Cricut cutter with various materials and different applications

I hope that helps jump start your STEM programming, or exploration of other areas of STEM you may not have considered. In compiling this list, I realize I have been leaning too heavily on basic science, particularly chemistry, and need to work on a little more balance myself. Play around, experiment, and have fun with it! Don't beat yourself up if you can't do it all or be as intentional as you'd like; we are all doing the best the we can with limited time, staff, and funds. 

If you have done successful STEM programs/activities that are not on this list, please tell us about them in the comments below!

And finally, to quote Ms. Frizzle:

“Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!”

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