Activities & Lessons
Science, Technology, Engineering and Math are woven into the fabric of our world. From antibiotics to touchscreen gloves, we use discoveries that were made using STEM every day. Illuminating the importance of these inventions helps learners recognize how STEM makes our lives better. It also demonstrates that STEM is everywhere, once you know what to look for. Ideally, an engaging introduction to the STEM will inspire future creators to dive into these creative disciplines and learn more. There are countless ways to help young learners jump headfirst into STEM, but invention stories and hands-on projects are hard to beat.
Easy STEM Day Activities for Elementary Students
- Use history to tell the story: Every famous scientist has a story. Retelling the histories of how great discoveries were made, and how amazing inventions came about, is a great way to get kids into STEM. Choose a scientist, engineer, mathematician or inventor, or let kids do the research themselves to choose a STEM figure that interests them. Stories can be shared verbally, or you can encourage young learners to create homemade comic strips illustrating the history of an invention. The accidental discovery of Penicillin, the invention of the Ferris Wheel for the 1893 Chicago Fair, Marie Curie’s discovery of radioactive elements, or the work of Katherine Johnson (who used math to help launch the Americans into space), are all great starting points. With a little research, students can learn about the contributions of lesser-known STEM heroes, like Alice Ball—who discovered the first effective treatment for leprosy—Agnes Pockels, or Tu Youyou, who discovered a life-saving new malaria medication.
- Find STEM in everyday things: It’s fun to help kids to recognize STEM in the world around them. Ask them to make a list of things they use every day that were invented by people working in STEM fields. Drawing Fibonacci spirals and tessellations helps young learners see math in nature. Sewing metallic thread into the fingertips of gloves to make them work on a touchscreen shows students that their skin conducts electrical charge. There’s no better way to demonstrate the importance of engineering in bridge-building than adding weight to a build a bridge designed and built by students using toothpicks, pasta or craft sticks. Making a camera obscura from a cardboard box and magnifying glass or assembling a cell-phone projector using the same materials helps students understand optics. There’s no end to the hands-on learning that can be fabricated from a few inexpensive supplies.
[Many of these experiments, including instructions, can be found in Liz's books. Plus, check out her YouTube channel for more ideas!]
- Make STEM learning relatable: Remind students that even pastry chefs use STEM in their work. Once students start to see the STEM in cooking, they’ll never look at chocolate chip cookies the same way again. Food science is one of the most engaging ways to get kids measuring (math), baking (physics), mixing things together (chemistry), and learning about nutrition (biology.) It’s fun to make a yeast zoo by adding a teaspoon of yeast to several plastic bags and then adding warm water, cold water, salt, or sugar to each bag to see how it affects growth and carbon dioxide gas production. Making homemade nut-free pesto in a blender gives teachers an opportunity to talk about plant cells. Students can smell and taste how breaking plant cells releases the flavor of basil and garlic, while oil protects the pesto from oxygen to keep it green. With three simple ingredients, kids can whisk up a delicious vinaigrette emulsion. While oil and vinegar don’t normally mix, whisking Dijon mustard, vinegar and oil together lets students observe how oil molecules play ring-around the rosy with mustard to create silky salad dressing.
[Download these instructions for making nut-free pesto with your class from Liz's newest book, Kitchen Science Lab for Kids: Edible Edition.]
Whether you celebrate STEM day on November 8 with a story and a salad, or a comic strip and a toothpick bridge, you’ll be helping your students see the world a little differently.
Liz Heinecke has loved science since she was old enough to inspect her first caterpillar. After working in molecular biology research for ten years, she left the lab to kick off a new chapter in her life as a stay-at-home mom. Soon she found herself sharing her love of science with her three kids and journaling their experiments and adventures on KitchenPantryScientist.com. In addition to running her website, Liz regularly demonstrates science on television and writes books. Her list of publications includes:
- Kitchen Science Lab for Kids
- Outdoor Science Lab for Kids
- STEAM Lab for Kids
- Star Wars Maker Lab
- Kitchen Science Lab for Kids: Edible Edition
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.
Learn more about HMH's K–12 science programs, which are designed to encourage student-directed learning and deeper understanding of concepts.