Wind-Resistant Towers STEM Challenge

My colleagues and I are currently beginning an integrated unit on weather. For each of our classes (PE, music, library, art, and STEM), our kindergarten students will be exploring a different aspect of weather. In my STEM class, we’re exploring how wind can be both a challenge and an opportunity for engineers. Our first challenge — designing wind-resistant towers — was incredibly exciting. It’s amazing how changing the context of the building task by adding in a hair dryer made my kindergarteners laugh and try again instead of crying when their creations toppled!

The Prompt: 

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Click for a copy of my prompt slides for this challenge!

Grade/Skill Level Recommendation: K-2, but could adapt upwards as well!


  • No adhesives allowed!
  • May only use provided building materials


  • Variety of building materials, ideally a mix of some that would be effective for building a strong tower and others that would not. I offered my students Magnatiles, Legos, paper cups, Keva Planks, Unifix cubes, base ten blocks, and dominoes. Next time I’d also like to include K’nex for their height potential.
  • Hair dryer
  • Rulers (optional)


Quickly introduce the challenge to students by sharing the prompt and providing a quick introduction to skyscrapers. I discussed with my kindergarten students how engineers and architects need to accomplish two things when they build skyscrapers — creating a sturdy structure than can support the massive weight of the building and developing a plan for withstanding strong winds.

Have students begin constructing their towers from the provided materials. When they have something that is ready to test, you can have students use a ruler to measure it (optional) and then blow the hair dryer on it for about 10 seconds.

If student towers topple during the wind test, encourage the builders to reflect on what they noticed and think about how they might create a stronger structure. If a student has a successful tower, ask, “Can you make it taller?”

I worked on this challenge for the entirety of my 40 minute kindergarten block, but they would have been happy to keep building beyond that time.

Teacher Tips:
Know ahead of time where your easily-accessible electrical outlets are and designate specific areas nearby where students should construct their towers. Or track down a long extension cord that can allow your hair dryer to move around your space with you.

I was the official controller of the hair dryer with my kindergarten students, but older kiddos could likely handle being in charge of the wind.

Be willing to test towers that will easily topple!

Take the time to make connections to existing buildings around the world if students create something that resembles them. Maybe your classroom will also have a young Gustave Eiffel!



Taming the Tide of 3D Printing

This year, our STEM program was lucky enough to receive a grant that helped us to get three 3D printers in our computer & STEM labs. My students are all pumped about 3D printing, but getting them to understand the process of 3D design and printing has been a challenge. They see the printer and want to be able to print anything they can imagine right then and there.

In my classes, I’m always striving to get students moving at their own pace and am uncomfortable when I see students all working on the same thing, so I’ve tried to avoid having a one-size-fits-all, everyone-look-up-here lesson about the 3D printer and 3D design. Recently, during a session of my overstuffed afterschool club, Makers Gonna Make, I had swarms of 4th graders inundating me with the same questions, so I created a tool to help students more clearly see the steps in this unfamiliar process.

Enter the “Am I Ready to 3D Print?” flowchart:


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This simple piece of paper has helped my students to conceptualize the process we use for 3D printing and to track their own progress through the different stages. This afternoon, I had students come in and say, “I know that I won’t be printing today, because I’ve still got 3 steps to go” which was a far cry from the “MUST PRINT NOW!” cries that filled our first session together. I’m excited to roll this out in my general classroom contexts as well, because I think it will help all of my learners better understand the roadmap for getting to print their awesome and creative designs.

If you’re interested in using and/or modifying this document to suit your needs, feel free to grab a copy here!

Longest Chain STEM Challenge

As a teacher who is working with ten different grade levels, I’m a huge fan of STEM challenges that are low-prep, require everyday supplies, and are still engaging. I’ve used the following challenge with students from grades 3-6 and am always impressed with the depth of thinking that arises from such a simple task.

The Prompt: Create the longest chain possible from a single piece of construction paper.


  • Chain must be constructed of interlocking loops
  • Materials limited to single sheet of construction paper, scissors, and stapler
  • 20-25 minutes to create chain

– 1 piece of construction paper per group (use different colors for each group)
– 1 half sheet of construction paper per group (same color for all groups is fine, but try to
make it a different color than all of the whole sheets of paper)
– 1 pair of scissors per group
– 1 stapler per group
– Extra staples in case groups run out
– Measuring tape
– Rulers



Quickly introduce the challenge to students by sharing the prompt and the constraints.

(Optional, but recommended) Give teams 7 minutes to work with a half sheet of paper, scissors, and a stapler to create a prototype for their chain. This is the time where I’ll often hear students engaging in some high-quality discussions. You can push these conversations deeper by encouraging them to use a measurement tool to try to prove why their theory will produce the longest chain.

After the prototyping phase, have students discard or set aside their chain experiments. Distribute full sheets of construction paper to groups and have them begin working on their final chain. (To prevent cheating, make sure the new paper is a different color than the paper groups worked with during prototyping.) Give students 20-25 minutes to work on their chains. Most groups will use this full time because of the number of strips they’ll have and the time it takes to staple.

Recommended questions to ask while you circulate around the room:
– What did you learn from your prototype that you’re applying to your final chain?
– (For early finishers) Is there anything you could do to extend the length of your chain?

When the building time is up, have teams measure their chains. I like to do this as a whole class, with teams bringing up their chains and measuring them in the front of the room. Teams come to the front, briefly share their strategy, and then measure their chains with a tape measure. We then record team data on the board. Our follow-up discussion doesn’t revolve around who made the longest chain, but rather, which techniques yielded lengthier chains.


Teacher Tips:
I have had success with having students complete this task in both pairs and trios. I prefer trios because the conversation has more voices and ideas and they can set up an assembly-line system for creating their chains.

I will often use a random team generator to create groups and get students working with different people in the room.

During the chain construction, I task teams with coming up with a team name for our measurement chart.



Family & Community Communication as a Specialist Teacher


Prior to becoming a specialist teacher, community and family communication was one of the strongest aspects of my practice — I created bi-weekly paper newsletters featuring a different student in each edition, I maintained a classroom blog with my students, I kept a digital e-portfolio for each student that parents could access at any time, I maintained a classroom website, and I sent home weekly update emails/paper notes to each family in my class (Thank you MailMerge!). I spent a lot of time on family communication and I felt that it paid enormous dividends during conferences, events, or family meetings — what was going on in the classroom was transparent and I could easily engage with families about student learning. It also helped to establish an important rapport that I could draw upon during those difficult conversations that periodically crop up and used to cause a sinking feeling in my stomach.

Now that I’m a specialist teacher, everything about communication with families has changed. Other than my eight 6th grade advisees, I’m not the primary contact point for anyone trying to find how their child is doing. I have one small box on the triennial report card that provides a list of standards and scores for my class, without much explanation about what my STEM class is about or the activities that we undertake during it. My classroom is down a hallway that is infrequently used unless you’re heading to my room or the locker rooms, so I also don’t get much in the way of incidental observation when families are dropping off or picking up kids. Overall, then, families would only know about STEM class based on the report card and anything that their child might share about the course. (Which, for my STEM-loving kids, might actually be quite a lot.)

One of my professional goals for the year has been raising family community awareness about what students are doing in STEM class. In choosing my approaches, I’ve tried to carefully balance effort with potential for results. I quickly ruled out a paper-based communication strategy, as I don’t have a lot of faith in students bringing papers from my classroom to their home classrooms, putting them in their backpacks, and then taking them home. I teach 400 students across 10 grade levels, so I also ruled out anything like an individualized weekly update.

I ultimately decided to take a three-pronged approach to reaching families.

  1. A STEM bulletin board in a high-traffic area. As mentioned above, my classroom is located down at the end of a hallway that isn’t highly frequented — except when people need to use the bathroom at school events. I’ve gotten quite a lot of foot traffic now that basketball season is here — I often see people stopping to check out the photos on the colorful board on their way to and from the gym; it’s even prompted a few conversations about what STEM is and what it looks like at our school.
  2. A STEM website with student blog element. Teachers in my district are encouraged to maintain websites and they are linked on our school website. I’ve created a Blogger site that serves as both a content-based site, where families can see STEM curriculum goals and information about activities. But, the homepage of the site is actually a blog, which I update once a week with student work from one of the grade levels. While I’m not sure how many families have actually viewed the site, an unintended benefit of this has been that students are checking out what other grade levels are doing, as the website is the homepage on all of the computers in our lab.
  3. E-portfolios. I’ve created e-portfolios for each of my 400 students. Once a week, I have what I call “documentation day,” and I try to update the e-portfolios of one grade level with work or photos that they’ve completed in STEM class. My 6th, 7th, and 8th graders are increasingly taking on more ownership of their portfolios and I made specific reference to them in my report card comments, which I’m hoping means that at least some families have seen them. I’m currently working on how to easily and effectively share the portfolios with families of my K-5 students — balancing privacy and accessibility is an ongoing challenge. These e-portfolios are also incredibly valuable for me, as I’ll be able to track and monitor student growth over the ten years that they spend at our school. It excites me to think about students have a record of their STEM progress that includes artifacts from both 8th grade and kindergarten.

I’m hoping that, combined together, these three strategies will help to raise family and community awareness about our STEM program. Are you a specialist teacher? How do you get the word out about the awesome things your students are doing in your class?

The Grinch Games!

I’ve been looking forward to this week for over a month! It’s our final week of school before vacation and it’s all about the Grinch in STEM class. I’ve put together a variety of Grinch-related tasks for my students in grades K-4. When they arrive in class this week, students are able to move freely between tasks for the duration of class.

  • Super Sleds: This challenge involves creating a sled that the Grinch can use to slide down Mt. Crumpit. This station is stocked with cardboard, rubber bands, tin foil, index cards, and paper clips.


  • Balance It On Crumpit: At this station, the Grinch has a bag full of stolen goodies. Students have to make the balance level by adding a variety of weighted objects to the plastic bucket.


  • Zipping Into Whoville: Using cups, pipe cleaners, string, binder clips, and rubber bands, students try to create the most effective zipline possible to help the Grinch get back into Whoville to return all of the stolen gifts.


  • A Seuss-ian Creation: This station is open-ended and challenges students to use a variety of recycled materials to create a new toy or musical instrument that a Who can use to make “noise, noise, noise!”


  • Lifting a Tree: At this station, students help the Grinch stuff a tree up the chimney by exploring how a simple pulley system works.


  • A Whoville Christmas Tree: Using cups, students try to build the tallest tree possible. Once it’s built, they can decorate it using the pompoms.


  • Grinch’s Growing Heart: On Christmas Eve, the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes. At this station, students use Legos to create three different sized hearts.


  • iPad Grinch Drawing: This activity is geared towards my youngest kiddos — using a Finger Paint app on our iPads, they try to create a picture of the Grinch.


  • Stealing Presents: Maybe my favorite of the activities! I got this awesome new toy — The Turing Tumble — and have turned it into a Grinch Game activity. Marbles get loaded into slots at the top left and right of the plastic board and students use different components that can get placed onto the board to try to get all of the marbles to wind up on the Grinch’s portion of the bottom of the board. (I’ll try to get a picture that better illustrates how the Turing Tumble works.)


I’m looking forward to four more days of the joyful noise, noise, noise that these games have created in my classroom!