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STEM Activities and Challenges for Middle School Learners

by Dr. Bruce Ellis
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Middle school is a unique setting. It’s full of students who want to be grown up but aren’t quite sure who they are. Quirky, energetic, and curious are the three words I’d use to describe the students I taught in middle school. And regardless of what subject you teach, you can leverage these three traits to help middle schoolers develop confidence in their learning abilities as they explore STEM concepts.

Below, I’ll share some of my favorite sites and activities, and I’ll also share groups and pages you can follow to help develop your PLN (professional learning network). After looking through and exploring the various resources, jump into the comments and share what groups and sites you think would be a good addition to the list. We’d love to hear from you!

STEM Activities

STEM Design Challenge: Make a Watch for the Visually Impaired

Follow these Seven Steps of the Engineering Design Process and challenge students to design a watch for the visually impaired. You can extend into ELA by having students design marketing materials and write compelling arguments with supporting claims and evidence. They can also compose literary texts such as personal narratives, fiction, and poetry to go with the watch.

STEM Design Challenge: London Bridge Is Falling Down

Building a bridge may seem easy until it is required to withstand a specific amount of weight. Have students research different types of bridges and potential materials they can use for building a model. Students can research how much weight specific bridges can hold by referring to sites such as Federal Bridge Gross Weight Formula or Ayres’s insightful article on How Much Weight Is Too Much for a Bridge. Each group can identify a collapsed bridge tragedy and research to develop a bridge to prevent the tragedy. If you want to add a little more excitement, share Season 1, Episode 1 of LEGO Masters, in which participants were challenged to create a LEGO bridge spanning six feet and holding more weight than the other contestants’ bridges. Your students will be amazed at how much weight the winning LEGO bridges held!

Making Plastic

Students of all ages know something about recycling plastic. They may even have a recycle bin in their classroom or home. But what did we do before we had the plastics of today? Have students begin their study of plastics by reading History and Future of Plastics and How Is Plastic Made? A Simple Step-by-Step Explanation. Scientists are designing new, more biologically-based plastics that may one day replace the plastics of today. To make the learning more hands-on, have students create their own plastic by mixing hot milk and vinegar together, kneading it, and letting it air dry. Sciencebuddies.org has all the information to help you and your students be successful polymer scientists– or, if you want to sound more highfalutin’, macromolecular scientists. And if you are a foodie, why not share SuperCook’s website. It has milk and vinegar recipes to make buttermilk, homemade ricotta cheese, paneer, queso blanco, and even sour cream!

STEM Activities Plastics

Density

STEM Activities density

Density is the keyword in this STEM activity. From Engineer to Stay at Home Mom has all the details you need to make your own ocean in a jar. Because density has to do with mass and volume, you’ll need some measuring utensils and a digital scale. A regular digital kitchen scale will work just fine for this activity.

Students in kindergarten predict whether items will sink or float when placed in water. Though this is an early precursor to a middle school density lesson, it may be a great opportunity for middle school students to interview younger students. They can ask why students think an item will sink or float or if they think the type of solution the item is placed in makes a difference. Some students could be assigned to interview adults with the same question to see if there is a knowledge gap regarding this topic.

Students may also be interested to learn that you can easily float in the dead sea due to the higher salt content, which is greater than ocean water salt content and much higher than fresh water. Density also comes into play in the medical and therapy fields. An example of this is when people experience sensory deprivation therapy, which may use tanks filled with water that has been saturated with Epsom salts to help with anxiety disorders, stress, and chronic pain.

Sweet vs. Sour

Have you heard of the Miracle Berry Challenge? It’s been around for several years. Though it is mainly done for fun in small groups, it could easily be an engaging middle school learning experience. The “Miracle Berry,” known by its binomial name as Synsepalum dulcificum, is a plant that grows in West Africa. “Miracle Berry” or “Miracle Fruit” gets its name because it contains miraculin, a glycoprotein molecule that binds with your tongue’s taste buds and signals to your brain that sour foods are sweet. Imagine trying something sour (lemon, lime, apple cider vinegar, cranberry juice, Sour Patch candy, etc.) and having it taste better…or even delicious!

STEM activities Miracle Berry

If you happen to have access to some Miracle Berries, then have students explore what is happening in the body (tongue, nerves, brain, etc.) when they eat something sweet, salty, sour, or spicy. Collect a sample of sour items and give each student a Science Lab Report (PDF version or Google Docs version) to complete. Initially, students record the item name and properties. They then taste each item (without having the berry) and record what it tastes like and any physical responses (mouth-watering, goosebumps, etc.). Each student then sucks on the berry for several minutes before chewing it and tastes the item again, re-recording a description of the taste and any physical interactions.

Finding Middle School STEM Resources Online

Pinterest has tons of resources for middle school STEM, but be warned; it may take you a while to weed through them to find ones that you want to use in your classroom. You might consider tweaking the search to narrow it down to your content area focus. As you look through the boards, don’t ignore boards with fewer pins – they might actually have more gold nuggets for you and less fluff!

Facebook has several middle school STEM groups you might consider. As you look through these, check out how many posts there are per day. This will give you a clue as to how active the group is. At the end of the description, it will say how many typical posts per day, week, or year. You may also tweak the search to find your specific content area, but be sure to add STEM after the content area in your search phrase.

Twitter offers some good ideas, though you might have to hone your hashtag skills to get just the right combination. Clicking on the Twitter link will take you to the latest tweets for middle school STEM. Be sure to check out what photos and videos have also been tweeted!

Searching Google for Resources

You can definitely search Google for middle school STEM resources, but you will probably get too much clutter in your search results. Here are a few tips to help you use the perfect search query to get the best results.

Define Results to Educational Entities

Unless you want to buy activities and resources for your students, consider limiting the search results to just educational organizations. Your search query should look something like this. Click here to go to these results.

Exclude Specific Sites from Your Results

If you find that a particular site is cluttering your search results, you can remove it by using the -site function. You can do this multiple times if you add a -site:nameofsite.org for each site. Here is an example that excludes Teachers Pay Teachers from the search results. Click here to go to these results.

What Is Your Favorite?

Hopefully, you found a few tremendous resources to make teaching middle school STEM more engaging and to bring fresh ideas to the great things you already have going on. What is your favorite middle school STEM activity or resource? Jump in the comment box and share with us. We’d love to explore them!


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