Learning Lab: 5 Easy STEM Challenges

Learning Lab serves as an opportunity to attain a specific strategy, lesson idea, or resource for your classroom. Everyday educators find a variety of activities that work in the classroom. #4OCF is proud to share the lessons, activities, and resources that have worked for our students. We hope that you can implement and modify these activities to meet the needs of your students.


Keeping students engaged during the last several weeks of school requires some extra effort, but also provides a great opportunity. One way to keep students engaged is to utilize STEM based challenges that promote collaboration and critical thinking skills. Below are 5 easy STEM based activities that can be used to effectively engage students in the design process.

Newspaper Towers

Have groups of students work together to create a tower out of simple materials like newspaper and masking tape. Each group gets the same stack of newspapers and one roll of tape, and has a set amount of time to create the tallest tower possible. This activity will help students to work together to collaborate and execute a plan, showing off their critical thinking skills. The group with the tallest tower wins. After the contest is over, have students discuss what methods or designs seemed to work best. Have the whole class then design a tower that will be taller than any of their group efforts.

Spaghetti Towers

Another variation on the Tower contest utilizes spaghetti and mini-marshmallows. Each group receives 20 pieces of spaghetti and 20 mini-marshmallows. Students have to use the materials to build the tallest tower. Try this activity without a time limit. Some students will rush into a design, while other groups will carefully plan out their design, realizing that they must build a strong base for the tower. Again, allow students to debrief after the contest is over, and challenge the class to build a second, better tower.

Marble Roller Coasters

Studying roller coaster design allows students to study physics principles, and concepts such as kinetic and potential energy. After engaging students in research on a variety of roller coasters, students can design and create their own coasters using foam pipe insulation and marbles. Your local home improvement store may donate a box of ½ inch foam pipe insulation. Each section of insulation can then be cut in half to make two sections of “track.” Start students off with small marbles first, then challenge them to use larger marbles. This will force students to rethink the potential energy necessary to move the “car” (marble) through the track. Students will quickly fill your classroom with roller coasters that include multiple loops, corkscrews, and other creative features. A great resource video can be found at: https://www.teachingchannel.org/videos/teaching-stem-strategies.

Wind-Powered Cars

With this activity, students can again take part in the design process, using straws, paper clips, index cards, life-savers, and other materials to create wind-powered vehicles. Simple directions can be found at: http://pbskids.org/fetch//parentsteachers/activities/act/act-blowitaway.html. Research on simple machines will help students to understand the wheel-and-axle, and concepts such as overcoming friction. After the design of cars, hold races to see which design goes the farthest or which goes fastest. Students can be challenged to come up with a design that will go a certain distance.

Balloon Rockets

This simple activity uses a straw, a balloon, string and tape. Students will tape the balloon to the straw and place it on the string to see how far it will travel. Students can explore how far or fast the “rocket” will travel, or design more elaborate “rockets” using additional materials. Directions can be found here: http://sciencebob.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Make_A_Balloon_Rocket1.pdf.

Keeping students engaged during the last few weeks of school can be a fun experience. Challenge students with these design activities, promoting collaboration, critical thinking, and STEM exploration. Share your STEM based activities or other engaging activities for challenging students in the comments section below.

By @RACzyz