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Kids are natural scientists. Just give them a gloopy substance, some knobs and string, a bit of cardboard, and a challenge, and they’ll invent something. The results may not be pretty, and the experiment may “fail,” but when left free to experiment, your students may surprise you, challenge you, and learn to persevere.
Along with the editors of Scholastic’s SuperScience, Science World, and Science Spin magazines, we searched for the best open-ended projects in their pages—ranging from exploring flight with paper airplanes to building musical instruments from “junk”—backed by fascinating, grade-appropriate articles. We had a ton of fun making these, despite our “failures.” We hope you will, too!
Float Your Boat
What They’ll Learn: Predicting, observing
Standard Met: NGSS LS1.A
How to Do It: Why do some things float and others don’t? Show kids the article about a giant pumpkin boat race, and ask why the pumpkin boats float so easily even though they’re heavy. (They’re filled mostly with air.) Then, lay out fruits and vegetables that float (unpeeled oranges, bell peppers) and some that are less buoyant (potatoes, mangoes), and have kids work in small groups to investigate how to make them more floatable (e.g., cutting them in half, scraping out insides). Have them use the project sheet to predict which ones will float. Next, place fruits and veggies in a tank of water to test their buoyancy. Ask questions like whether the size of an object or what’s inside it predicts if it will float or not. Have kids continue filling out the project sheet with your help.
Tip: Not every orange or mango will sink or float to the same degree, because of their individual density or shape.
Making Paper Planes Soar
What You’ll Need: Colored paper, paper clips, rubber bands, pipe cleaners, decorative tape, scissors, etc., and project sheet
What They’ll Learn: How force, angles, weight, and other principles affect flight
Standard Met: NGSS ETS1.B
How to Do It: Kids will be flying high with this STEAM-centric experiment, which asks them to tinker with paper-plane design. To begin, briefly explain the basics of flight: When you throw a paper plane, you are giving it a “push,” and the harder you push, the farther it should go. Explain that real planes get this push from engines, and that air moving over and under the wings helps a plane stay aloft. Pass out sheets of paper, and show kids how to make a basic plane (help them make it, if needed). After each child has made one, divide kids into small groups and have them take turns standing on a stool to throw their planes a few times; measure the distances flown and record the farthest (have volunteers come in to help, if possible). Then, distribute paper of different weights and colors, along with paper clips, rubber bands, pipe cleaners, scissors, decorative tape, markers, etc., and have students create one or two more planes, and test these out, with the goal of making one that can fly farther, or higher, or in a different way. Older kids can work with various angles or other complicated designs (they can find tips online).
Tip: Try flying your planes outside on a windy day to see what happens— do they fly farther, higher?
Testing Mold Growth
What You’ll Need: Bread without preservatives, baggies, water, project sheet
What They’ll Learn: How moisture affects mold growth, using observational skills
Standard Met: NGSS LS1.B
How to Do It: What makes some foods go bad more quickly than others? (Answer: Moister foods that aren’t preserved spoil more quickly, which can show up as mold growth.) Give small groups three pieces of bread each. The first will go into its baggie as is; the second will be slightly moistened; and the third will be briefly soaked in water. Over a week, kids will observe to see which grows the most mold. Have them experiment further with foods like gummy bears (full of preservatives, so unlikely to show mold) or watermelon (mostly water, so likely to get moldy). Students can write or draw pictures to describe what happened to the bread.
Tip: Bread with a lot of preservatives won’t grow mold easily, so leave the Wonder Bread behind and test bread with a shorter shelf life.
Tunes From Trash
What They’ll Learn: Engineering design process
Standard Met: NGSS PS4.A
How to Do It: In this STEAM-oriented exploration, you’ll give kids recycled containers and other “junk” (tissue boxes, containers, rubber bands, beans, etc.) and challenge them to build something that makes music. Begin by playing recordings of music, and ask kids what sounds they want to make. Once they’ve decided on their sound, distribute materials and let them explore. Ask questions such as how they can modify their instruments to make a different pitch (higher or lower sound). For example, they might use different-size rubber bands on a homemade guitar or cover a drum with a different material, or vary its diameter. Finally, share the story and a video of how a town in Paraguay made beautiful instruments out of trash for the schoolchildren there. Note: The project sheet is for making a rubber band guitar only.
Tip: Have a concert with your homemade instruments, even if you’re just playing a made-up song.
Testing A Hyperloop
What They’ll Learn: How magnetism, speed, friction, and so on affect engineering
Standard Met: NGSS ETS2.B
How to Do It: An ultra-high-speed train that levitates? Thanks to the power of magnets, it’s no longer sci-fi! After sharing an article and video on hyperloops, and talking with your class about magnetic levitation (maglev systems use the repelling force of magnets to “float” a train just above the tracks), tell students they will build a model of the part of the hyperloop system that allows the train car to float. Begin by stacking four small ring magnets on a straw or dowel stuck upright in clay. Then, stack two magnets and slide them onto the straw the opposite way so that they repel each other and float. To represent passenger weight, add washers one by one over the top two magnets. Measure the distance in between, and re-measure while adding more washers. Challenge students to think about how the number of passengers in a hyperloop pod affects how it functions. Vary by using magnets of different strengths or other materials.
Tip: Challenge kids to calculate the mean, or average, weight that a pod can hold.
Trapped In Tar
What They’ll Learn: Predicting and testing results
Standard Met: NGSS ESS2.A
How to Do It: The thought of giant mammoths and saber-toothed cats roaming what is now current-day Los Angeles is enough to stir the imagination of any fourth grader! We know a lot about these Ice Age animals because of remains found in L.A.’s La Brea Tar Pits, as discussed in the article. But which animals were most likely to get stuck, and why? Did the temperature of the pits have anything to do with them getting stuck? And why did some escape? After sharing the article, pair students and have them make two “tar pits.” Put an inch of warm water into one bowl and ice water into another. Place a glass filled with ¼ cup of molasses, to represent tar, into each bowl. Then, make “mammoth feet” by putting 30 pennies in each plastic cup and securing a rubber band around the cup with tape as a handle. After 10 minutes, remove the glasses from the bowls and lower the feet into each glass to see which one sinks faster. After pushing the feet to the bottom of each glass, test how much force it takes to “escape” the pit. Students can vary by using more or fewer pennies, different temperatures of water, and alternate materials to represent Ice Age animals.
Tip: This is a messy experiment, so be sure to cover surfaces and wear old clothing!
Rube Goldberg Trap
What They’ll Learn: Engineering design process; principles of physics, such as force and work
Standard Met: NGSS PS3.C
How to Do It: Can you build a better mousetrap? This is the question students will answer in this STEAM challenge when they design their own trap, using simple machines, for a small toy. First, explain the ideas of work and force in using simple machines like inclined planes, pulleys, and levers. Then, share a video on how to build a Rube Goldberg machine, which uses a series of simple machines working in sequence to perform a task. Next, distribute materials such as cardboard, cups, spools, straws, and string, and have groups build a trap for a small toy that uses at least three simple machines. (Pass out diagrams of the six types of simple machines—lever, wheel and axle, inclined plane, wedge, screw, and pulley—for reference, or let kids go online to watch videos again.) During the process, have students troubleshoot with you and with other groups, and redesign their projects as necessary.
Tip: Allow kids to work on their project over a period of several days, as they may need more time to build an awesome trap!
Making Pictures Pop
What They’ll Learn: Engineering design process, geometry, problem solving
Standard Met: NGSS ETS1.B
How to Do It: What makes a greeting card go from ordinary to extraordinary? Pop-up pictures! In this STEAM-friendly challenge, students will be given a set of criteria—at least two types of moving parts, able to stand on a flat surface, and no larger than 8.5 x 11 inches when opened—to include in a pop-up card they will make. After sharing an article on a pop-up artist, show students how to make a basic pop-up. Then, have them diagram their design. (They can also research more complicated designs on their own.) Next, distribute colorful paper, along with scissors, glue, and rulers, and ask kids to produce one or two unique pop-up cards. Once they’re done, have them compare methods with those used by classmates, and have them build another card, if time allows.
Tip: Have kids review to make sure their cards meet the original criteria, an important part of the engineering design process.
Mystery of the Bog Bodies
What They’ll Learn: How acidic environments can preserve organic matter, predictions
Standard Met: NGSS PS1.B
How to Do It: Hauntingly preserved bodies discovered in Denmark’s peat bogs led scientists to ask what caused these people living 2,400 years ago to be found in such perfect condition. (Answer: Low oxygen and high acidity made the bogs inhospitable to bacteria, fungi, and insects that break down organic matter.) After watching a video and reading a story, discuss with students why certain substances work as preservatives to prevent decay. Then, have them experiment with various liquids to see what best preserves fruit. Students will predict ahead of time which liquids (water, vinegar, or baking soda and water) will prevent fruit from decaying quickly. Leave one piece of the fruit exposed to the air. After a week, assess the results, relating them back to the bog bodies.
Tip: Extend the learning by having students do further research on preservation, e.g., techniques used with mummies.
Photos: Adam Chinitz
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