October 15, 2023

This fall I was asked to teach a STEM enrichment class at a homeschool hybrid academy. This school has academic classes on a university model system, meaning the students meet with their teachers two days a week and homeschool with their parents two days a week. The remaining school day is an optional enrichment day where they can choose fun classes. Other homeschoolers from the community can also enroll for these classes.

My STEM class is a multi age class for 3rd-6th graders. It meets once a week for an hour and 15 minutes. I teach 2 of these classes on different days because the hybrid academy has two locations. The enrollment in the first location exceeded our original expectations and I have 22 students. While that’s a lot for a homeschool class, it is pretty fun for STEM because we can break into groups and have both collaboration and friendly competition!

On the first day of class we did a simple challenge (spaghetti and marshmallow towers) and I gave students a survey. I listed the ideas from my previous STEM posts, Simple No Prep Math Stem Projects and Fun With Food Stem Challenges as well as any other fun STEM class ideas I could think of. I let the kids rank each idea from 1-10 and add any others they had. After tallying the results, I made a tentative schedule for the semester. Then I asked parents for donations of some of the needed supplies.

Here’s what we’ve done so far and how each one went!

Exploring Magnets and Making Magnetic Slime

My intention was to start class having kids watch part of the Science Max episode about magnetism. Unfortunately we had technical difficulties and couldn’t get the sound to play through my laptop/TV connection so we didn’t end up doing this. It is really fun and informative, though, and I would recommend it!

Since it didn’t work we just jumped into exploring magnets. Never underestimate what homeschoolers already have at home. I asked the parents to send in any magnet sets they had at home and got some great ones! I did buy this one from Learning Resources that I wanted to give to my grandson after class.

I put the magnet sets out on the tables and just let the kids play with them. They really enjoyed this and were able to make a lot of great observations.

While they were playing I had groups come up one at a time to make magnetic slime. I had bought a jar of magnetic iron filings to add to homemade slime. The students enjoyed making slime (of course!) and several kids were experts at the process. However, we could not get the slime to attract our magnets. I don’t think we had any magnets that were actually strong enough. If I were to redo this project I would make sure to have a strong neodymium magnet. We still had fun playing with it but it didn’t really complement the learning!

Jello Earthquakes

The kids brainstormed what they knew about earthquakes (they had a surprisingly large amount of background knowledge) and we watched a short YouTube video of actual earthquake footage where you could see tall buildings swaying. The kids’ STEM challenge was to build a house from marshmallows and toothpicks that could withstand being shaken in a pan of Jello without falling over or breaking!

Pro tip: buying premade Jello cups and having a child spoon them into a disposable pan was much simpler than making and transporting a pan of Jello!

After we were finished they got more marshmallows and toothpicks to build any kind of 3D shapes they wanted.

Elephant Toothpaste and Exploding Pumpkins

This was our first outdoor messy STEM day!

When I first started teaching science I asked my brother, who is a veterinarian, if he had any advice. I will never forget him telling me how important it was that students do experiments that were actually experiments. “Most of what teachers call experiments are just a series of steps to follow where the teacher already knows exactly what will happen,” he said. “That’s not how real science works. In science you test out ideas and the majority of the time they don’t work the way you think they will. Then you figure out why and what you want to try differently.”

Thus, when I had the kids make elephant toothpaste, we talked about the role of each ingredient, and then I let them experiment with the ratios and find out how that changed the results! This was really fun and educational!

We had less luck with exploding pumpkins. We did have a great conversation and mini lessonabout potential and kinetic energy and the kids were excited to explode pumpkins by wrapping them in rubber bands. However, we learned something! The parents who donated pumpkins sent the mini ones so each child could have their own. However, it turns out that “mini pumpkins” aren’t pumpkins but gourds. They are MUCH harder than a pumpkin. Even with hundreds of rubber bands, there was not enough pressure to explode them. The kids ended up throwing them to finish them off, which they did think was really fun!

Straw Bridges

The kids brainstormed by drawing and writing as many types of bridges or specific bridges they could think of. They came up with so many including drawbridges and one girl telling us about swinging rope bridges in Costa Rica! We watched a 2 minute YouTube video which showed types of bridges including arch, truss, suspension, and beam bridges.

Then the students were challenged to work with their group to design a bridge they could build from 22 drinking straws and a roll of Scotch tape that was at least a foot long. We had a friendly competition to see which group’s bridge could hold the most weight. I have previously tested with pennies, but this time I had a giant bag of Smarties candies and told them they could keep the Smarties their bridge could hold. It was so funny how motivational that was! The winning team’s bridge held 18 rolls of smarties.

Afterwards I had them tell me what they learned or discovered and was amazed at everything they were able to tell me! Their ideas varied from talking about how the bridge was supported to how important it was for the team to be working from the same plan to the importance of taking your time.

This was most definitely a project I would repeat! One of the least expensive and simplest to prepare for, yet with so much student engagement and learning.

Wall Marble Runs

Our most recent project was the best yet! I was absolutely amazed at how engaged the kids were with this. Every single one of the 22 kids was actively involved for over an hour and didn’t want to stop!

And again, it was very simple. I had all the parents bring in as many toilet paper and paper towel cardboard tubes that they could. I split them between the groups and gave each group a roll of masking tape. There was also construction paper and scissors they could use. Their challenge was to build a marble run on the wall. They chose the following categories for their competition:

  • Tallest
  • Widest
  • Most Creative
  • Coolest

Do you have another idea for a STEM class fun project? Please add it to the comments below! Our class is still going so I will follow up with a Part 2 post in December. Our plans include giant bubbles and Mentos geysers, baking soda explosions, edible Mars rovers, snack machines, lava lamps, an egg drop, and the project almost every child had as their top request- an escape room!

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