Creating STEM Challenges For Quarantined Schooling

STEM has been a hot topic in schools for a while now.  For anyone unfamiliar, the acronym stands for science, technology, engineering, and math.  Some people call it STEAM and add art. 

This post is designed to help anyone unfamiliar with a STEM challenge to implement it at its most basic level.  Why would you do such a thing?

  • A) It’s good for kids to learn to think creatively to solve problems (like we hope people around the world are doing right now to impact the pandemic)
  • B) It can keep them entertained on an engaging educational task for a sustained amount of time if implemented correctly. 

Step One: Introduce children to the Engineering Design Process.  I used this handy visual. 

Step Two: Present the children with a problem. 

It doesn’t have to be an actual problem; it is just a challenge they have to try to complete.  For our first quarantined school challenge we decided to use our stockpile of toilet paper (I swear we were not part of the initial hoarding-this is actually toilet paper we’ve had stockpiled for a few months.)

Our challenge: Create the tallest tower you can using only toilet paper rolls for your stuffy to sit on. Each of my kiddos grabbed a beanie boo and started piling. 

At first there wasn’t much planning, just piling.  All three worked independently.  The highest they got was 8 rolls tall.  I then challenged them to combine their tower so they had enough resources to make the tower even taller.  My older two got really excited by that idea, but my three year old had already labored for about 10 minutes and was now content to have his stuffy jump from roll to roll and then bury himself under several rolls.  Oh three year olds!

The older two began to get frustrated then their towers kept tumbling.  We discussed the importance of having strong bases.  So they built up their bases, but then they still tried to solo stack after just few rows.   The tumbling toilet paper nearly led to some tears, but this was an important point to discuss perseverance. 

I reminded them that engineers don’t give up! If they we wouldn’t have any tall building.  I showed them the cycle of design and reminded them they were at the stage in the process where they needed to improve, and to do that they need to ask what the problem was.  They whined, “it keeps falling down”.  I said, “Can you imagine what can be done differently?”  Since I am there mother, they completely ignored my useful suggestion at first.  After 4 more failed towers they were willing to consider I might have a point in thinking about something else.  I pulled up a picture of a brick wall on my phone and asked them what they noticed about the bricks.  Were they stacked one directly on top of the other like they were trying to do with their toilet paper? 

Seeing this was the motivation they needed to create a new plan with the toilet paper forming a more supportive stack instead of a solo spire.  They triumphantly erected a 12 toilet paper roll high tower for their stuffy to proudly perch upon. 

Admittedly, this is not the kid of activity you can really set up really little kids to do and then walk away.  Your precious TP will end up “decorating” your entire room and most likely will be used to mummify someone.  The reason I am sharing this for quarantined schooling is for its value as a 45-minute lesson in perseverance, planning, and patience- all attributes our children (and ourselves) can benefit from right now.   

If toilet paper towers aren’t for you, check out Science Buddies for other STEM challenges to do at home!