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Trends in STEM

Repurposing Your Classroom Materials for Inventive STEM Learning

Engaging in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is far more about curiosity and wonder than about having the “perfect materials.” It’s for this reason that at the National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF), we believe STEM learning is always at our fingertips.

Exploring STEM can mean repurposing building blocks or tiles to create structures that demonstrate concepts like center of gravity and balance, or upcycling cardboard or plastic containers to create invention prototypes. Even the simplest materials can lead to meaningful discoveries. After all, the Collegiate Inventors Competition® Finalist team NeoVent used a yogurt container and duct tape to build a prototype of its lifesaving infant respirator.

To that end, in your classroom right now you likely have the perfect materials for exploring STEM concepts hiding in plain sight. These might include:

  • Balls and sporting goods
  • Bubble wrap
  • Canisters and containers
  • Cardboard boxes
  • Cups and lids
  • Miscellaneous paper (construction paper, magazines, newspapers, etc.)
  • Paper towel tubes
  • Rubber bands
  • Springs
  • Various toys, like building blocks, car or train tracks, game parts, pinwheels, plastic figures or toy vehicles

Incorporating common materials in classroom lessons is a great way to implement one of the teachable creativity skills that are central to famed educator and researcher E. Paul Torrance’s Incubation Model of Teaching: “Look at it Another Way.” Using this strategy, an educator invites children to consider problems from a variety of viewpoints and approach problems from multiple angles.

This approach is very much in line with the principles of invention education, which helps students build an innovative mindset and skills by creating invention prototypes to solve real-world problems. With simple materials, you can put this type of hands-on learning into action. Below are a few STEM activities you can use to get started!


1. STEM Activity: Sea-ing Your Way Across

Set sail with this hands-on STEM exercise that encourages students to think of new ways to traverse the ocean and discover its mysteries. Participants begin by creating ocean animals and plants out of readily available items such as art paper and recyclables. They then use plastic bags to make waterproof shoes and a die to determine the type of movement required to cross the water. Every time your students cross the sea, they can roll again and try a different route!


2. STEM Activity: Duct Tape Millionaire

When they are challenged to design an inventive speaker the world has never seen before, students embrace their inner entrepreneur. They make a portable speaker out of a tissue box, a small cup and duct tape, and they investigate sound principles by covering the speaker's opening with various materials, using various sized cups and experimenting with placing sound-making gadgets within the cup. Once their prototype is ready, students present their invention and business strategy to their classmates.


3. STEM Activity: Fibonacci Design

In this activity, students take inspiration from the spirals of a nautilus shell, known in mathematics as the Fibonacci sequence. They create their own ideal personal space by using this natural pattern to inform their design. Along the way, they build a 3D model and consider other items that could be redesigned using the natural world as their inspiration. 


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