Engineering leaders have discovered creative, engaging, and sustainable ways to educate students about STEM. And it’s all about the fun.
By Lisa Owens Viani, SWE Contributor
The days of boring STEM activities for children are over, thanks to creative thinkers who are constantly devising new ways to attract youth. Using everything from contests and rewards to role models, teamwork, individual learning, and even art, STEM experts are innovating fun and challenging activities to engage young students. Many are simple and sustainable, using little more than paper, tape, and household items, and most can be taught at any age and made easier or more difficult as needed.
Mary Isaac, a mechanical engineer in the San Diego metropolitan area who holds a Ph.D. in STEM education, has designed and evaluated STEM activities for 15 years. She said she likes to keep things as simple as possible. “One of my favorite activities uses construction paper and tape to build a tower capable of holding books,” she said. The tower is built by making supports of rolled paper, taped together, and plastic cafeteria-type trays or baking sheets for the floor, then placing books (or other weights) on top of the structure to test its strength. “If you’re not in the classroom, you can use canned food instead of books,” she said. “It’s one of those things that gets them thinking about the fun that comes with testing, when they see if they can hold 20 pounds of stuff with just paper.
“The goal is to build the cheapest, strongest structure, so it is a ratio of how much it costs (how many sheets, how much tape) to how much load it can bear — a minimum of about two pounds,” Dr. Isaac said.
The activity teaches the concepts of force, stress, and area, Dr. Isaac said, and is popular with students from elementary school to college age. Older students’ designs are more complex. “They tend to start thinking more critically; they want to argue about the rules and constraints. So, I give them the [engineering] rules so they can find the ones they can break or not, or how to work around the rules.” Dr. Isaac always stresses that whatever they are designing must meet what she calls the “four Fs”: fit, form, function, and frills — and frills can only be added after the students make their structure or device work.
Many STEM instructors like working with paper because it is inexpensive, easy to use, and can be recycled. Tracy Nguyen, a doctor of optometry and the outreach director for SWE San Diego, loves the paper tower exercise, too. “We give them an introduction to structural engineering and then we give them the stuff — heavy college textbooks — and talk to them about making columns, wrapping the columns in construction paper, getting them to think about where to lay the columns, how close to each other, or farther out.” She has used the activity for children of all ages.
At a recent event, Dr. Nguyen used paper in a different type of exercise, tasking high school students to make paper airplanes after dividing them into groups that included members outside of their friend groups to “break the ice.” She showed a brief PowerPoint presentation that explores the principles of aerodynamics and aerospace engineering, then gave them 10 minutes to build the planes with an extra three minutes to decorate them. “They all lined up on stage and took turns testing the planes. The student whose plane flew the farthest won a Starbucks gift card,” she said. “It’s always nice to win something and the cost is minimal. It really motivates them.”
“We’ve given Girl Scouts workshops for badges in science and engineering. The badge draws them in and then maybe inspires them to engage in more STEM activities.”
– Tracy Nguyen, O.D.
SWE life member Debra Kimberling, F.SWE, a volunteer board member of the San Diego County Engineering Council, uses paper to teach students to make helicopters. “All you need is paper, paper clips, and creativity,” she said. Recently she engaged in the activity with K–2 students and then with those in grades 3–6. “It’s all stuff you have in your closet, and it turned out to be really easy,” she said. “But you need to practice it before you teach it.” She said the children had a great time making the helicopters bigger and bigger and trying to keep them in the air for as long as possible.
Leah Baker, a technical sales associate with Cargill in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and SWE outreach committee chair, has taught another simple activity using paper, along with a limited amount of tape, aluminum foil, and a golf ball. “The idea is to get the ‘radioactive’ ball across the table without any touching or human pressure or blowing on it,” she said. “That’s the engineering challenge.” (The key is building a ramp.) Each table of children needs one adult leader, who is allowed to touch the ball. “The kids go absolutely nuts,” she said. She’s used the same activity for youth from ages 3 to 16. “We make it harder for older kids; they have to get a ball in a cup on the floor at the end of the runway, which uses two pieces of tape on the table.”
To create more of a challenge, the ball can zigzag and touch specific pieces of tape on the table. She’s also used straws and bowls as part of the activity. “The context is that at production sites, we often cannot touch the material we work with,” said Baker. “[The product] might be dangerous to touch or need to be perfectly clean. For example, you don’t want lots of people touching the food you eat.”
Another activity involving paper that Dr. Nguyen and Dr. Isaac like is called “power up with paper,” which involves building circuits with paper, copper tape, coin batteries, and LED lights to teach about electricity and circuitry. The activity works for all ages and can be easily accomplished at an outreach fair or in a classroom. “The kids can draw what they want, a simple circuit, and then we give them copper tape to tape around the LEDs,” Dr. Nguyen said. “It all needs to align correctly and then all of a sudden, a light bulb goes off in their heads. They’ve created something that lit up.”
“All you need to create a circuit is something to connect point A to point B, positive to negative, with a load in between,” Dr. Isaac said, adding that copper tape is not very expensive and can be used on paper or cloth.
She and Dr. Nguyen are experimenting with adding circuitry to gingerbread houses that children have made with graham crackers and sugar paste. “You can light up a gingerbread house without having to run wiring; it’s very cool and the kids can do it themselves,” Dr. Isaac said. After the houses are built, Dr. Nguyen likes to simulate an earthquake by placing them on a “shake table” that the participants have built themselves using two sheets of cardboard or plexiglass with two tennis balls sandwiched in between. Rubber bands hold the cardboard or plexiglass sheets together, and a ruler or paint stirrer is taped on to serve as a handle to guide the shaking. “It makes the kids think about structural engineering, how to build a structure that will stand,” said Dr. Nguyen.
Another benefit to the gingerbread house activity, said Dr. Isaac, is that children get to see that just because something involves food doesn’t mean engineering wasn’t involved. “It wraps them around the idea that there’s engineering in everything,” she said. Even making pizza involves math and chemistry, she added. “You’ve got no waste, and you have something to eat. Doing things with food is inevitably a winner.”
Vidhya Thiyagarajan, an intern at Merck in High Point, Pennsylvania, and SWE’s collegiate director on the board of directors, said one of her most popular activities for high schoolers involves building a simple water filtration system. “We use common, everyday materials. We find gravel outside, use cotton balls, rubber bands, coffee filters, items that we find in our apartments,” she said. Two-liter soda bottles are used to hold the water. Thiyagarajan divides students into teams of five or six and gives them up to 10 minutes to design their systems.
“They’re able to create the filter and test it out with some unclear water we create ourselves,” she said, adding that the activity usually takes 45 minutes to an hour. “We explain how this is related to environmental engineering and sustainability in general. Low-cost water filtration is really important in other parts of the world. So, we show them why it is useful.”
Thiyagarajan said talking with children and youth about the social context of engineering projects is critical and encourages those who are already developing a passion for STEM to understand how engineering can imporve the world.
“We use common, everyday materials — we find gravel outside, use cotton balls, rubber bands, coffee filters — items that we find in our apartments.”
– Vidhya Thiyagarajan
During the COVID-19 shutdown, Thiyagarajan worked with her colleagues to conduct virtual sessions for high school students that challenged them to move a snack from their kitchen to their bedroom without walking or doing anything else. Most students created simple chain reaction, or Rube Goldberg-style, machines using materials from around their homes.
Thiyagarajan said teamwork is most important with high school students. She tries to connect the activities to concepts they’ve learned in school and then bring them back together to discuss STEM careers in which they can help people.
While Dr. Isaac agreed that teamwork is important, she pointed out that in disadvantaged communities, it is also important for each student to be able to take ownership of what they build. One way she and Dr. Nguyen have found to do that is to partner with the Girl Scouts. “We’ve given Girl Scouts workshops for badges in science and engineering,” she said. “They are so motivated by the badge.” Badge emblems have included mechanical engineering and robotics, and the activities included designing cars and cranes. “The badge draws them in and then maybe inspires them to engage in more STEM activities,” she said.
In Gwarinpa, Nigeria, Stella Uzochukwu-Denis is the program director of the Odyssey Educational Foundation and a SWE Global Ambassador. She uses a makerspace, or “Fab Lab,” to teach STEM activities to children. The collaborative workspace offers people with shared interests — often in technology, digital art, or engineering — a place to gather to work on projects and use the tools and equipment provided in the lab. “Makerspaces provide individuals and communities with access to resources that may not be readily available to them otherwise,” said Uzochukwu-Denis. This benefits students when adult hobbyists using the lab then help guide them. The Fab Lab, which allows students to build from scratch, includes 3D printers, a cutter-plotter, and sewing machines that bring their visions to life.
Uzochukwu-Denis said that using students to teach other students is very effective. “They role-play the educator trying to come up with activities they think would suit their students,” she said. “They also help me know what their interest is and how they think that topic should be taught. Say we need to learn about robots. The student will research and teach us about robots, and we are seated in the class as students. They do that in groups with everyone having a role to play.”
The students get creative when budgets and supplies are lacking. “One year we had very low or no budget to purchase a mat and LEGO pieces for a [transportation related] competition, so the students began programming robots to execute the tasks,” she said. The students also came up with the idea of reusing cups, beads, and strings left over from parties when they needed to build a machine to demonstrate how data is sorted. Uzochukwu-Denis believes that in the future, virtual reality may also play a big role in STEM activities, possibly leading to greater sustainability.
Additional K-12 Resources From SWE
SWE has a broad array of resources available for those who want to engage youth in grades K-12 in activities that teach them about STEM and spark their interest in a career in engineering:
- SWENext: SWENext is free to join and provides students access to programs, mentors, and resources designed to develop leadership skills and self-confidence in STEM subjects. (swe.org/outreach/swenext/)
- SWENext Clubs: SWENext Clubs at primary and secondary schools connect SWE members with students and educators. The program offers students an opportunity to gain leadership experience and learn more about STEM college majors and careers. (swe.org/outreach/swenext-clubs/)
- SWENext Adult Advocates: A SWE adult advocate engages with and empowers girls and young women to prepare for engineering careers, helping them develop an interest in STEM and supporting them throughout their educational development. (swe.org/outreach/adult-advocate/)
- Adult Outreach Toolkit: This guide offers a step-by-step process for reference when planning outreach events. It includes a planning worksheet, training workshops, and links to ongoing local outreach programs. (swe.org/outreach/adult-advocate/toolkit/)
- Advance Learning Center (ALC): The ALC includes courses on effectively engaging underserved youth, challenging STEM misconceptions held by high school students, the importance of role models, youth protection policies, and more. (swe.org/learning/)
- SWENext High School Leadership Academy (SHLA): The SHLA builds self-confidence and resilience among precollege students interested in engineering and technology degrees and provides multiple opportunities to network with peers, mentors, role models, and industry professionals. The program includes five core content tracks: leadership development, college preparation, STEM pathway opportunities, self-development, and diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. (swe.org/learning/high-school-leadership-academy-shla/)
- Scholarships: SWE scholarships support those who identify as a woman who pursue an ABET-accredited bachelor- or graduate-level program in preparation for careers in engineering, engineering technology, and fields related to engineering globally. (swe.org/scholarships/)
- STEM Pathways: This is a digital library that allows students to explore STEM careers by specific discipline, including a digital workbook for each engineering career. (swe.org/stem-pathways/)
- Program Development Grants: Micro-grants are available to support the strategic activities of SWE organizations, including sections, members at large, committees, and affiliates. (swe.org/support-swe/program-development-grants/)
- SWE Youth Protection Training: This resource explains the requirements and expectations for interacting with youth at SWE-sponsored events and activities across multiple event types and situations. It serves as the gold standard for safe and inclusive outreach engagement policies related to youth. (swe.org/youthprotection/)
— Laurie A. Shuster
Full STEAM ahead
Kimberling discovered that some children are drawn into STEM by reading books and through art — a variation known as STEAM, which can intersect with teaching them about role models, she said. “My philosophy is that if kids can see a role model who looks and talks like them, a mental picture is created that helps them succeed in their field.”
To that end, through the San Diego Engineering Council, Kimberling has created “engineering legends,” 70 postcard-sized cards that feature a diverse array of role models. Kimberling said she pulled from many sources for the cards, and she included such engineering luminaries as Mary Golda Ross, a member of the Cherokee Nation who was the first Native American aerospace engineer and a space race pioneer. Also included are such women pioneers as Rebecca “Becky” G. Bace, a computer expert who helped develop a cybersecurity program for the National Security Administration, and Mary W. Jackson, an early aeronautical engineer and “human computer” for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
“We have a K–12 art contest directly promoting the engineering legends,” Kimberling said. “We tell them that during Engineers Week, the goal of the contest is for them to either draw their own invention or a role model.” Engineers Week is a series of events designed to inspire and educate young people about the field of engineering. This year’s event will be held Feb. 18–24 and includes Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day on Feb. 22.
The role model cards work for all ages, “including our age as well,” Kimberling said.
In addition, Kimberling reads a book — Rosie Revere, Engineer — to younger students. Authored by Andrea Beaty, the book follows a young inventor who learns as much from her failures as her successes. Students feel very engaged with the characters in the book, Kimberling said. “It’s fun and you get to learn and grow with the kids.”