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Simple and cheap STEM-at-home activities to foster curious minds

Learning shouldn’t be confined to the classroom walls. With year-end holidays coming around, why not try out some of these simple, low-cost STEM activities you can conduct at home?

Oil spill simulation

A great activity to get your young ones thinking about applying STEM to real-life scenarios, this simulation introduces the concept of oil spills and different clean-up efforts.

Though there are many version of this simulation, The National Geographic Resource Library provides an in-depth classroom-style experiment exploring the 2010 spill off the Gulf of Mexico, downloadable PDF worksheets for free. The Kitchen Counter Chronicles also has their own version of this activity. For a simple outline for this simulation, keep scrolling!

Set-up: In a large container, fill half with water mixed with blue food colouring. Other materials required include vegetable oil, spoon, cotton balls/pads, and dishwashing detergent.
Simulating the oil spill: Pour some vegetable oil into the water, observing how the oil behaves. Does the oil float or sink? Are the oil droplets small or big?
Physical clean-up methods: Using the spoon, get the learners to try scooping out the oil. This is also called skimming, because you skim along the water surface where oil floats. Another method is to use the cotton balls or pads and attempt to soak out the oil by absorption. How effective are these methods?
Chemical clean-up method: After attempting with the physical methods, try adding some dishwashing detergent into the pan. What happened?

Photos from Kitchen Counter Chronicles

The dishwashing detergent acted as a ‘dispersant’, breaking up the oil into smaller droplets in the pan.
Some reflective questions to ask after the activity include:

  1. Which methods were effective at removing oil from the water? Which were not so effective?
  2. What happened to the oil after using the ‘dispersant’?

For older learners, the internet can also be used to research oil spills and their effects. Pictures of real-life oil spills can contextualize the simulation and bring attention to the ecological impacts of these man-made environmental disasters. Some questions they can try to answer using Google include:

  1. Where does the oil from oil spills originate from?
  2. How is an oil spill cleaned up?
  3. How do oil spills affect sea creatures? (note: replace “sea creatures” with a specific animal for more detail. E.g., “How do oil spills affect pelicans?”)
Photo taken by Paul Buck

Pasta engineering

NASA shared this fun “Building with Pasta” activity for classrooms, where students have to build the tallest freestanding structure made out of uncooked spaghetti sticks. The goal is to build a structure that can support a marshmallow for at least 15 seconds. This simple activity can easily be done at home with the same easy-find materials, and is pretty much mess-free!

Graphic from Playmeo

Materials: uncooked spaghetti, marshmallows, masking tape, scissors, ruler/meter stick, stopwatch (or just a timer on a phone or tablet).

Before starting construction, get learners to sketch out their ideas on a piece of paper. Concepts such as gravity and load can also be discussed here as they are fundamental forces at play in this task. 

Photo from @lchristensen161 (Twitter)

If the first prototype did not pass the 15-second marshmallow test, this is a good time to talk about the testing and improving parts of the engineering design process. How can the design be improved upon? Does any part of the prototype need to be redesigned?

If the first prototype passed the test, awesome! Maybe set a height criteria that the second prototype needs to meet, whilst still being able to hold up the marshmallow for 15 seconds. Maybe add more marshmallows to increase the load. If you are working with a single child, perhaps look up spaghetti towers built by others online and compare the designs. How might they look similar or different? Do the towers found online have parts that could be added to your prototype to make it better?

Volcano model

We all remember our first volcano model experiment. Oh the simple joys of seeing the ‘lava’ erupt from the top of a paper-mache volcano! Keep the tradition alive and bring this simple volcano activity into your kitchen.

This chemical reaction calls for common kitchen supplies such as baking soda, vinegar and dish soap, plus optional food colouring for added lava flair. A simple volcano can be made with a soda bottle and card paper. Make sure the activity is done in a tray for easier clean-up.

The Natural History Museum provides instructions for a simple volcano set-up. The volcano can be made out of the card paper, with a hole in the middle cut out that fits the opening rim of the plastic bottle. For an added Art element (putting the A in STEAM), paints can be used on the card paper to make the volcano appear more realistic.

Combine baking soda, dish soap and water in a bowl, and pour this slurry into your volcano (i.e., the plastic bottle). In a separate cup, mix vinegar and food colouring. When you’re ready, pour the vinegar-food colouring mix into the volcano and watch the eruption!

Photo from KinderCare

For an experimental element, test out different ratios of baking soda and vinegar. Does changing the amounts affect the volcano’s eruption?

4. Virtual field trips

During the pandemic, technology became an essential aspect to teaching and learning. One thing that many kids missed out on was field trips, especially during the height of lockdowns. Thankfully, this led to the rise of virtual field trips. Check out these virtual field trips that you can go on with your curious learners, from the comfort of your home!

The Nature Conservancy offers a variety of virtual tours from the coral reefs of Palau to the great forests of China. Each tour is supplemented with a teacher guide PDF, where you can find fun printable handouts for the young learners to complete like field trip logs, discussion questions, a vocabulary sheet and a ‘Nature Spy’ page to tick off the many animals and plants that show up in the tour.

Photo from The Nature Conservancy “The Secret Life of Corals” Teacher Guide PDF

What’s even more exciting is that virtual tours aren’t just limited to Earth. Say what?

A collaborative effort between Google and NASA birthed an exciting VR-supported experience called “Access Mars” where you can explore the Red Planet, thanks to images taken by NASA’s Curiosity rover. Explore Mars’ terrain and learn about the planet in this fun 360º virtual tour!

Photo taken from Access Mars

Not only was virtual touring super useful during remote-learning, but it opens up exciting possibilities of virtually visiting places you may never visit in person. This is a valuable resource not only to young learners but for anyone interested in exploring new corners of the world (and universe!) through virtual technologies. 

These activities are great for young learners not only to keep them occupied at home, but also to give them a STEM perspective as they grow and explore the world around them. Stay up-to-date with our blogs to get more activity ideas, free resources, and more!

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