In this hands-on STEM activity, children explore the inner workings of everyday items around the home in order to better understand how they function!
- Safety goggles
- Utility pliers
- Needle-nose pliers
- Wire cutters
- Claw hammer
- Hex key
- Utility pry bar
- Take-apart item of choice
Selecting an Item
- Ideal take-apart items contain many parts, such as motors, magnets, gears, screws and circuit boards. One of the best examples is a VCR.
- Avoid items containing a lot of molded plastic as they are difficult to break open.
- For safety reasons, do not take apart cameras, cell phones, irons, computers, microwaves, monitors, printers, rotary phones, televisions, toasters, vacuums, video game consoles or any items that contain glass.
Preparing the Item
- Remove any batteries. Unplug the item for four days to discharge capacitors before taking it apart.
- Use wire cutters to remove all electrical cords.
- Children may have difficulty loosening screws. Allow them time to be successful. Consider loosening screws ahead of time so children can accomplish the task on their own.
Taking the Item Apart
1. Tell the children they will be using real tools to take apart a machine!
- Explain that machines are held together by many screws and that they may have to remove most or all of the screws before their machines will come apart.
- Explain that pliers are used to grab and twist bolts.
- Show how wire cutters are used to cut wires.
- Display the types of screwdrivers and demonstrate how they are used to remove specific screws — right to tighten and left to loosen.
2. Explore the anatomy of a machine.
- Explain that the parts they see are common in many mechanical or moving devices. Work together to identify as many as you can in your item!
- Look up images of simple machines on the internet together and search for your item.
- Gears and springs: Gears work together with the motor to make the machine’s parts move. Springs give tension to certain parts of the machine.
- Circuit boards: A circuit board is the brain of a machine. A machine’s wires usually lead to the circuit board.
- Capacitors: Don’t ever remove these, they store power and can shock you!
- Motors: These can turn wheels or spin parts. Motors have magnets in them.
3. Begin taking the item apart.
- Allow children to take the lead while you assist with sketching and recording observations, supervising them as they remove parts.
- If the item has molded plastic that is difficult to remove, use a small pry bar (adults only) to open the machine. If that does not work, place it in a bag and break it open with a hammer. Save any pieces and parts in a container to investigate later. Every piece of the machine is important in making it work — even the small ones!
4. Congratulate and discuss.
- Ask the children what the inside of their machine looks like.
- Reflect on the process together, discussing what was found and what the next steps should be.
What Are We Learning?
Discovering “what’s inside” is a foundational skill that fuels curiosity and innovative thinking. National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Jim West, co-inventor of the electret microphone, has said that as a young child he took apart his grandfather’s pocket watch to see how it worked. In fact, many of the world’s greatest innovators have cited taking apart discarded gadgets at home as a key experience.
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At NIHF, we are committed to celebrating the lives of our world-changing Inductees and inspiring the next generation of innovators through our education programs. To learn more about our mission, we encourage you to visit our website, and for more ways to bring STEM subjects to life, check out our blog!