One day as I was cooking, my daughter was next to me on her helping tower doing her own stuff. At one point I turned around and I saw she had made a tower out of some cans, a sponge and her toy pig. I thought to myself, what a great way to think outside the box! Of course, we can use building blocks and lego to make a tower because that is what they were designed for. But what happens when we don’t have this at hand? What happens when we just have some cans, a sponge and a toy hippo and we need to build a tower? A STEM challenge!
Coming up with solutions to a problem with the resources at hand is a challenge that many engineers face on a daily basis. Finding creative ways to use the things you have or to solve problems is linked to what Edward de Bono coined lateral thinking. Lateral thinking is a way of reasoning that involves breaking through preconceptions (we can only build a tower with our building blocks) in order to see things in a different way (random objects as “building blocks”). This activity is great if you want to help your child unlock their lateral thinking abilities and encourage them to think outside the box. In addition, you are getting them to work on their creativity and problem-solving skills through a bit of trial-and-error play.
Before we start the activity we need to collect some random objects. Your kids can be involved in this part or not. If they are, don’t reveal what the objects will be for, just tell them you are collecting some things for a fun project you want to do with them later. Make them a bit curious about the big fun project you are preparing! As you collect stuff you can ask them what they think the project is going to be, get their minds working. You might even discover something more fun to do with a bunch of random things!
Here you have a list of suggestions when collecting the objects (sometimes totally random might be difficult, remember we are trying to create educational moments and we might need to guide the activity a bit):
- Try to have both heavy and light objects so they can experiment with weight
- Collect some objects that have flat surfaces and others with rounded or uneven surfaces so they can experiment with stability and balancing
- Gather different materials; wood, plastic (tupperwares, toys, straws), cloth (cushions), tin (full or empty cans), cardboard (shoe boxes), sponges
- Collect around 10 objects
- For the challenge part, we are going to need an object that generates wind! A fan, or if you don’t have one, some cardboard pieces from a box. (We will use this to simulate a hurricane!)
The STEM Challenge
Ok, the moment of truth has arrived, we now have to use those crazy random objects you collected to build a tower! So here is the challenge:
Build the tallest tower, using as many objects as you can, that will withstand a hurricane
Try out different combinations and write down the measurements of the tower and the number of objects you used, then use your wind making devices to create some wind! See how well the tower does.
Children will learn through exploration on their own but there are ways you can guide the learning, directing their attention to certain aspects of the activity. For this STEM challenge, you could help them learn some basic building principles by asking questions as they explore and experiment with the different objects.
Example questions about stability:
- What objects are better to use at the bottom or in other words; will make a good foundation?
- Are they flat or have different shapes?
- What objects are better to use at the top?
- Are they heavier or lighter than the rest?
- What size are they?
Example questions about materials:
- What materials are better for the bottom? Top?
- Which materials are difficult to use? Why?
- Is it because of their shape? Are they too soft? Too hard?
Example questions about balance and support:
- Can a same object be used in different positions?
- What positions are best?
- Where should you use light objects? heavy?
Once they have experimented with building a tower of random things you can do some small follow-up activities. Here are some suggestions but feel free to change/adapt or invent some new ones:
- Choose 5 objects and make a tower with the heaviest object on top
- Choose 5 objects and make a tower with the biggest object on top
- What 3 objects will make the most stable tower? You can then test stability by slowly rolling a ball towards the tower to see if it stays standing.
- What 3 objects will make the tallest tower? Measure the tower with a ruler and write down different combinations of objects to determine which 3 objects create the tallest tower.
- Outdoor activities: Build a tower that will withstand an earthquake or flood using as many objects as possible. How many objects did you use? Recreate an earthquake by stomping around the tower or a flood by filling a bucket up with water and letting the water flow towards the tower. When doing the flood part make sure you are using objects that you don’t mind getting wet.
That’s it! It is a simple open-ended activity with many questions and many solutions which is perfect for inquisitive STEM minds! Let your children learn as they explore and let me know in the comments if you were able to complete the STEM challenge and what random objects you used.
For more information about STEM and how to transform your STEM activities at home, check out these posts:
Check out other fun STEM activities to sneak in some STEM learning:
- STEM activity: Build a pyramid and learn about shapes
- Math Art Project For Kids: Easy DIY Shape Stencils
- STEM experiment: Scientific method float or sink activity
- Beautiful Hands-on Activities For Preschoolers: STEM Nature Eggs
- STEM project: Engineer a house out of natural materials
Happy STEM learning!