Real Life Connections – STEM Activity Ideas

Our most memorable lessons are those that capture our students’ interests and imaginations. With STEM in particular, it is important we purposefully and explicitly walk students across the bridge from what they find exciting outside of school to what they’re learning in our classrooms.

If you’re looking for the starting line to help students make real world connections to foundational science, technology, engineering and math topics, get back to kid basics with food, design, and thrill. These three STEM activity ideas will give your students a new perspective on the familiar:

Pop Goes the Lesson

The Lecture

Popcorn offers an opportunity to discuss two states of water – liquid and gas. You can use this launch activity to discuss the properties of steam or even how the force of steam can power engines. What does this have to do with how popcorn pops? Well, when the water droplets inside a popcorn kernel vaporize, the pressure from the steam leads to an explosion. Pop!

The Activity: How does temperature affect the popping of popcorn?

  • Divide your class into three groups, giving each group a bag of kernels. Have students count out 100 kernels, placing them in a popcorn-popping bowl.
  • Using a portable oven, heat the bowls at varying temperatures for a set amount of time (typically 2-4 minutes). Heat the first bowl at 500 degrees Fahrenheit, the second at 450 degrees and the third at 250 degrees. Ask students to make and record their observations.
  • Once the bowls have cooled, have each group count how many kernels popped and records those numbers. Students should also record general observations about the heated popcorn kernels.
  • Afterward, as a class, compare results and draw conclusions. What happened with each bowl?
  • Expected Results: When it was too hot, the steam formed too quickly with many kernels popping too soon and burning. When it was too cool, there wasn’t enough steam inside many of the kernels, so they didn’t pop at all. The middle bowl should be the closest to what you’d typically expect for popped popcorn.

Ups and Downs

The Lecture

Elevators help students relate real life to simple machines, pulleys in particular. What is a pulley? How does a pulley make it easier to lift weight? Use a diagram (like this one or this one) to explain how traction elevators, the most common type of elevators, utilize fixed pulleys, steel cables and counterweights to move elevator cabs inside elevator shafts.

The Activity: What better way to reinforce concepts about pulleys than to have your students build rudimentary model elevators?

  • Each small group starts with a long rectangular cardboard box, which serves as the elevator shaft. Students stand this box on one end. It’s a good idea to secure it with duct tape so it doesn’t topple over.
  • Students pierce two holes in this box, on opposite sides near the top. They’ll fit a rod through the holes so it goes all the way through. (Students can also decorate the back of the box to make it look like a building.)
  • Next, the groups take a smaller, square cardboard box and use it as the elevator cab. They’ll place this smaller box inside the larger box with the open end facing outward. It should look as though the elevator cab is resting on the ground floor.
  • Students pierce a hole in the top of the smaller box. They fit one end of a string into that hole and knot it so it stays in place. They may put an action figure or a stuffed animal inside the smaller box to serve as their elevator passenger.
  • Students take the loose end of the string and pull it up and over the rod, forming a crude pulley. Then they make a hole in the back of the longer box and fit the string through it.
  • When students pull the string behind the big box, the small box will go up. When they let go, the small box will go down. Voila! It’s an elevator!

To further reinforce these concepts, have students to label the parts of a pulley on a diagram.

Keep Your Hands and Feet Inside the Classroom

The Lecture

Roller coasters provide a memorable introduction to physics fundamentals. We can explore how roller coasters climbing uphill build potential energy – and then how when coasters head downhill, they transform that potential energy into kinetic energy. Likewise, acceleration, friction and G-forces all make for terrific topics surrounding something students love – speed and spin!

The Activity: If you’ve built elevators in class, why not roller coasters? The track can be made of rubber tubing, and the car a marble.

  • Start by giving your budding engineers a length of tubing. They’ll duct tape one end of the tube to one classroom surface (a table, a desk, the floor) and the other end to another surface.
  • Before taping the tubing, however, they’ll twist it into a few typical roller coaster shapes: hills or even a loop.
  • The goal is to get the marble all the way through. If it gets stuck at some point, your young designers will rework their track layout. They’ll have to figure out a pattern that minimizes friction and takes advantage of potential energy and momentum.
  • If you’re feeling adventurous, you could have your groups race each other.
  • Once every group has created a successful coaster, instruct your students to describe their finished product in writing, explaining how the marble got from one end of the tube to the other.

In the future as your students ride elevators or roller coasters, or find themselves munching on popcorn, these real-world to STEM connections will click and propel their interests in STEM exploration. If these ideas spark an urge for more real-life STEM applications in your lesson planning, review these criteria for real world problems to help brainstorm and plan new activities.

Real World Learning Matters

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