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Teaching STEAM on a limited budget

Written by Ben Newsome on June 5th, 2016.      1 comments

STEAM - Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Mathematics

Teaching science in your classroom doesn't necessarily have to be just about following the textbook. If you want to truly engage kids in the sciences you have to tap into their creative side, that is, let them go about solving a scientific problem their own way and see where their discoveries take them. The only issue in the classroom is that in most circumstances you just don't have access to all the materials and you can get discouraged when you hear about the awesome things being done by people with bigger school budgets. The good news is that in many ways the lack of fancy resources is not a limiting factor as you'll find that as long as you engage the students with a question worth solving, the students are just as happy working with simple materials just as much as the expensive stuff. This thinking is also the bedrock of the Maker Movement, whereby students tinker with all sorts of materials to produce a creative solution to problem. This teaching mixes of a variety of disciplines and has become well known as STEM, although lately there has been a inclination to call it STEAM as an acknowledgement of the artistic processes inherent to creative design challenges. 

Beyond learning to work with materials on a design challenge, a major outcome for STEAM projects in the classroom is that kids can learn through failure. Whilst it can feel good for students to have continual success in their experiments, consistent success whilst performing textbook experiments doesn't teach your students about the real world i.e. dealing with challenges when not all the variables are known. In fact, teaching students to participate in STEAM experiments where the outcome is not guaranteed is actually incredibly important, as learning to operate in these conditions is critical when pushing the boundaries of knowledge and is actually an important component of the discovery and entrepreneurial mindset.

So with that in mind, what are the kinds of STEAM challenges can you run in your classroom on a limited budget?
  • Water bomb or egg drop challenge

    Water bombs for a STEM challenge in a baking tray
    Water bombs, ready for action!

    This is a classic engineering challenge that students absolutely love. The basic premise is that given a limited time and a limited materials budget, students have to make their egg or water bomb survive a free fall. It's all about creating a scenario that engages the students interest; in this case we suggest having the students pretend that they're landing an Astronaut and sensitive equipment on Mars. You can also liken the challenge to the engineering issues also faced with car safety whereby seat belts, crumple zones, the roll cage, airbags and more are constantly tested by road safety experts to ensure passenger safety. You'll need to setup some rules which everyone must follow:

    - The types of materials the students can use. Generally any sort of classroom materials hanging around will suffice, but the following might be a good starting list: balloons, string, plastic cups, rubber bands, tissue paper, wooden kebab sticks, drinking straws, paper clips, sticky tape, cotton wool balls etc.

    - The amount of materials they are allowed to use. Be strict about the material use as you are getting them to model what happens when you have a budget (very important in any job!). You could even introduce bonus points for using less materials, as not only would they be 'saving money and resources', you can discuss how reducing the payload weight means that the rocket itself to lift their craft would need less fuel.

    - What happens if they break materials (eg. snapped rubber bands, popped balloons, cut drinking straws). Up to you here but I've seen classes respond really well when they know that they need to be careful with the implementation of their materials. For example, if students choose to chop up the straws, they stay chopped. This means they have to plan what they are doing and they have to adapt to the consequences of material failure, both useful skills to have!

    - A hard deadline for launch. Not only is this good for lesson planning, it models the real world as the space agencies have very specific launch windows due to positioning of celestial objects.

    - I tend to only give the egg or the water bomb to the students at the last moment. Not only does that stop mess from these being dropped at the wrong time, it also requires them to design a hatch or cargo bay door to load their payload. After all, no Astronaut has to have their space craft built around them!

    The main safety concerns are making sure that kids are not allergic to eggs (if so, use water bombs instead), plus that you've got a safe place to drop the contraptions from a reasonable height. We run this activity as a holiday program for vacation care and have lots of fun!
  • Wooden ice-cream stick bridges

    Building bridges using paddle pop wooden sticks. A girl in this photo is wearing safety glasses and smiling whilst holding up her bridge design
    Building bridges using craft materials

    Who can make their bridge hold the most weight? I've seen this done using newspaper & sticky tape, spaghetti and foam pellets, Lego and more. There a multiple ways to build bridges, with the central learning being that students investigate different truss arrangements for strength. It's best limit the students resources, especially the sticky tape or glue as otherwise students are tempted to setup their bridges with so much adhesive that they're not actually testing their bridge designs at all, rather just how much they could weld their structure together. For weight we find that simply using school textbooks is more than enough to test the bridge truss arrangements to destruction. For those wanting better materials we often visit schools with a Building Bridges program which involves the use of hot glue guns and wooden 'paddle pop' sticks.
  • Marshmallow & Spaghetti towers

    marshmallow and spaghetti tower
    Build it up high!

    The marshmallow and spaghetti tower build is lots of fun and teaches kids the value of triangles in engineering. Hand out equal amounts of marshmallows and spaghetti pieces to each group and give the students a time limit to create the highest tower. Students often have trouble with creating the base until they realise that a repeating pyramid pattern is the simplest solution. Once the challenge is finished you can get the whole class involved in making one giant structure, especially if you get each group of students to make repeating pyramids that can be be placed together (an example of streamlining a manufacturing process). The only drawback of this STEAM activity is that the spaghetti does snap quite easily, which means you need to to have spare packets on hand as well as allocate some time for cleaning up. For this reason the activity is best run on wooden floors or concrete as the spaghetti pieces can be difficult to pick up off thick carpet or grassed areas.
  • Build the highest cup tower

    Cup and plate tower building challenge, with the number of cups per level increasing by one each time
    Can the students increase the number of cups for each level?

    Plastic cup tower building challenges are lots of fun and very easy to run. Usually this challenge involves giving students 100 cups each and a time limit, where generally the students start building pyramid-shaped structures. For an interesting variant, see if the students can create an inverted tower instead whereby they start with one cup on the first level, then 2 cups for the second level, 3 cups for the third level etc. The students will have to concentrate as they will need to be very careful about the center of gravity the entire time. To make it easier you can include paper plates as part of the materials list. 
  • Straw tower building challenge

    Straw tower building challenge, with pink straws taped together to raise a wooden block above a concrete surface
    Who can get the wooden block up the highest?

    Given some straws, sticky, scissors and a time limit, the students have to build the highest tower. To make it interesting you can make it a requirement that the constructed tower also has to support a weight such as a wooden block. Often the limiting resource is the amount of sticky tape the students use, however kids can get around this by connecting the straws together for the upright columns. This is a fun STEAM challenge which can be run at a moments notice.
  • Boat building challenge

    This is an engaging STEAM challenge based on displacement and buoyancy. All you need to do is give the students a set amount of Aluminium foil, a bucket of water and some metal nuts. In a limited amount of time, the students need to create a boat that can hold the most amount of weight. This is a fairly easy challenge for older students however for the younger ones I often find that they struggle, often because they design the boat to be streamlined rather than a barge shape. Also students often sink their boat due to placing all their metal weights to one side of the boat. As a discussion with you students you can mention the importance of the Plimsoll line on freighters, which is used to measure the effect of the weight of cargo on the submersion of the ship and thereby how seaworthy the ship might be in rough sea conditions.
  • Balloon powered boats

    Boat building STEAM challenges are fun and this one gets the students going! Given a balloon, a plastic food container, sticky tape and straws the students can fairly quickly put together a boat that will move in water. To make it more challenging its worth introducing this as a race, whereby you give them multiple balloons plus materials that could be used to make the boat more streamlined. As always, time should be a limiting factor.

There are so many options to running engineering challenges in your classroom. Other teaching ideas could be that you have students construct a cantilever to support a marble the furthest out from a desk or you could get kids to raise a basketball up using newspaper and sticky tape or they could break out the Lego to make a Rube Goldberg machine made out of levers, pulleys and gears that knocks a Lego figure into a glass of water. It all comes down to the the back story you present the students. 

Want more STEAM project ideas? It might be worth checking out our Pinterest board on engineering projects for kids as well as the 100 free science experiments on our website. We use a bunch of these STEAM lessons in our holiday programs and science camps and find that having a couple of these activities on-hand as an extra extension activity makes for highly motivated kids and very little downtime.

As a life skill, kids benefit highly from learning to follow up on statements such as 'I wonder if ...' and they definitely enjoy trying to solve a problem in a supportive yet competitive environment. The best bit is that having the materials on hand in your classroom won't break the bank plus the lessons can be setup in very little time and have the tremendous potential to expand your students confidence in problem solving. On top of this, the creative nature of a STEAM activity allows your students to take risks and explore their own imagination and curiosity. The more the students get exposed to design challenges the better as it can only result in your learners becoming more independent and self-directed, exactly the kind of outcome you want in your students before they leave school!

Happy teaching,


Ben Newsome
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Got any comments or want to share your own teaching experiences? We'd love to hear from you below!


Lionel Duffield says ...
Yes, it's really a good for students to learn new things and also for the parents.

Recently, I came with the studybooster which help students to get sponsored on completion of such goals. If your kids are good in such activity then I think you should have to register on

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