Seven (plus one!) STEM Activities on a Shoestring

For the last year or so, I’ve been trying to do a bit more STEM in my programming. Many times, I’m inspired by what colleagues are doing with younger kids, or what I find online, but universally, I’m stunned at how many science activities can be done with minimal supplies and money. Here are some of my favorites.

  • Pinhole cameras using Pringles cans. “Pinhole camera” is a bit of a misnomer here, since you can’t actually take pictures with these, but they make cool optical illusions and they’re a good way to discuss light particles, refraction, and more. All you need is a Pringles (or similar) can, some waxed paper, duct tape, and aluminum foil. Here’s the tutorial from the Exploratorium. I used this activity to add a little sneaky STEM to my Miss Peregrine party last fall.


  • The Marshmallow Challenge. I haven’t done this yet, but I heard about it at a conference earlier this year and I can’t wait to try it with my teens. Break your group into teams and give each team a marshmallow, a yard of masking tape, a yard of yarn or string, 25 pieces of uncooked spaghetti, and one marshmallow. Then, set a timer for fifteen or twenty minutes. The team that builds the tallest tower and balances the marshmallow on top wins–either a small prize or just bragging rights. This is a good one to tack on to the end of any program, or use as a team-building or icebreaker activity with your TAB.


  • Toothpick Towers. Put out some toothpicks, gumdrops, and marshmallows (mini or regular-size or a mix of both will work) and see who can build the tallest tower using only those materials.


  • Marshmallow Cannons. Cut the bottoms off of clear Solo cups (punch-size). Knot some balloons and cut off the bottoms. Stretch a tied-off balloon over the bottom of the cup and use it to launch mini marshmallows at targets. This is a good way to talk about physics and trajectory. Here’s a tutorial.


  • Constellation Cups. There are tons of constellation patterns available online. (I’ve used this one.) Cut out a diagram of a constellation and glue it to the bottom of a Dixie or styrofoam cup, then use a thumbtack to poke holes in the constellation pattern and you can look through the cup to see the stars!


  • Index Card Bridges. This is a lot like building card houses, and all you need is index cards. Have your teens build bridges composed entirely of index cards. For a little extra challenge, have a bowl of dice, beads, pennies, beans, or whatever other small objects you can think of and see whose bridge can hold the most weight.


  • Binary Beads. Put out some beads, string, and a chart of the alphabet in binary code (like the one here). Have your teens write their name in binary, and then use two colors of beads to make their binary name into a bracelet or necklace.


  • Anti-Gravity Calm Bottle. I’m doing this one with my teens as part of our Eclipse Week Celebration next month. It costs a little more than the others I’ve listed, but not too much. Fill an empty water bottle halfway with baby oil and add some glitter. In a separate container, color water with food coloring until you have your desired shade. Pour the colored water into the bottle and leave about half an inch of space at the top. Put the top on the bottle, seal it up with hot glue or duct tape, and shake. Because of the way that oil mixes with water, the glitter will go up instead of settling to the bottom. Check out the full tutorial here.

Looking for more inspiration? Check out my Pinterest boards for Teen STEM, Teen Space Programming, Maker Club, and more!

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