May 4, 2016

Summer STEM Challenge Events

As the school year draws to a close, it can be so difficult to keep kids engaged in meaningful and rigorous lessons/activities!  Those of you who follow me know how much I love STEM challenges, and this time of year is yet another reason.  These challenges are naturally tons of fun, super-engaging, and it's easy to ramp up the rigor and cross-curricular connections as much as you like!

I've included a brief description of each challenge in my Summer STEM Events below along with suggested materials. For those experienced in facilitating challenges, this will likely be enough inspiration to get you on your way. For those who would like a little more support, more information is available by clicking on each challenge title, and I'm always happy to answer your questions about STEM challenges!  

As always, materials for all challenges were procured at the Dollar Tree except a large box of craft sticks (Michael’s) and candy (Target).

Each challenge will takes about an hour, and could take more depending on your students' age and experience with STEM challenges as well as how many post-design extensions you choose to do. 

I recommend one challenge per day or week leading up to summer break, or even all challenges in one day-long 5-event pentathlon!  A reminder: STEM challenges are always most beneficial when done in multiple iterations, but they can be treated as one-off activities as well.  

All right already! Get to the good part!
OK, OK! I'll get a move on, but please be sure to read to the end for more details on prep and STEM challenge basics that apply to every challenge you do!

Challenge 1: Pick & Pack

Basic Premise: Individually or in partners, students will select items to pack for a road trip. In this 2-D simulation of a 3-D task, students arrange items with different point values into pre-defined car trunk spaces. They can’t have it all, though! They’ll use a criteria & constraints list to bring all of what they need and some of what they want, as they aim for the highest point value.

Four trunk shapes included. Use one or use them all &
pack the trunk as efficiently as possible.

Special notes: This one is deceptively simple, but there are many ways to amp it up. For example, require the perimeter to be comprised of alternating prime and composite number items or entirely of powers of two -- that's just the beginning of what this challenge has to offer!  Also note, this challenge focuses hard on the "M" in STEM! 

Challenge 2: Amphibious Phone

Basic Premise: Individually or in partners/groups, students will design and build a summer-proof* case for a smart phone. (No actual smart phones will be harmed in this activity; they’ll create weighted test phones!)

*Summer-proof = waterproof & retrievable when dropped in a body of water

It's not necessary, but it adds to the fun if you find some smart phone
clip art to use. Phone cut outs are included in my resource.

Special notes: This one is very challenging! Waterproofing is tough! It's not for the faint of heart! Remember: productive failure is an important goal of STEM challenges. The first iteration may not go well, but give it a second shot and let your students amaze you! 

Basic Premise: In partners or groups, students will design and build two devices: one to slow the melting process (Keep it Cool) and one to speed it up (Make it Melt).

You can use anything that melts, but I prefer using Hershey's bars because
there are many subtle, observable changes for students to record.

Special notes: This is one of my favorites, but it incorporates observation, which can be time consuming. My recommendation is to have students run the Drippin' Dash Relay Race in between observation intervals! See below! 

Challenge 4: Drippin’ Dash

Basic Premise: Individually or in partners/groups, students will design and build a water scoop purpose-built for volume and stability to be used in a relay race: The Drippin’ Dash.

If students work in groups, it is recommended that they make at least two designs so they have a back up available if one fails during the race.

Special notes: I usually ask partners/groups to produce more than one design in the given time frame. I let them choose which one(s) to use in the race. There are a few options for running the race included in my product, but you can make up your own rules as you see fit.  One thing I recommend is that the students bring back-up designs with them to the race to sub-out for another that might break mid-race.

Basic Premise:
In partners/groups, students will design and build a water slide built for speed, thrills, and safety.


Special notes: Who doesn't love a good water slide?!  Everyone focuses on height, twists, and turns! Younger students focus on safety (the beads don't fly off the slide); older kids focus on safety & max speed!  Pro-tip: add a little blue food coloring to the water!

Just by viewing the information above, you can pick up the simple materials illustrated and run four of the five challenges with just a bit of prep time on your part. (Admittedly, Pick & Pack would require extra prep and is harder to implement without the resource described here, but the others are easier to run with!)

Alternatively, you can save yourself time and energy (and use it to head over to your local dollar store!) by picking up the prepared challenge lessons for grades 2 - 8, which include: 

Criteria & Constraints lists from
Pick & Pack
  • NGSS standards
  • Teacher notes/guide
  • Criteria & Constraints Lists (editable)
  • Modifications to increase the difficulty for older students
  • Data recording & analysis handouts (two sets for younger/older students)
  • Extension ideas, bonus handouts, and more!

Examples of handouts from Pick & Pack

Stem Basics (applies to EVERY STEM Challenge):

 Give the students a list of criteria and constraints to guide their designs.
 Post-build, students test their designs and record and share results.
 If desired, give time for related research and extension activities.
 Provide time for a second iteration for students to apply learnings.

With this set, you’ll find even more extras and extensions than in my previous seasonal series. Stay tuned! I'm just getting started, and will be updating previous challenge sets this summer with some extra goodies!

Check out these other great ideas from some of my favorite bloggers!


  1. Great ideas that kids can do at home with help from their parents. Wonderful way to keep them learning.

    1. Thanks, Deann! You're right, these are great to do in the class or at home!

  2. Fantastic! I love the ideas especially about phones since so many students have them now!

  3. These are fantastic! I know my kids are going to LOVE these challenges!! Thank you!