One of the best ways to get started in the world of STEM is with a design challenge! We are huge fans of design challenges and love to incorporate them whenever we can because they are a fantastic way to showcase the role that creativity and problem solving play in STEM; there is no one right answer to a design challenge and it can be so much fun to see what kids come up with! Design challenges are also an easy way to bring STEM into the home and get engaged as a family. With that in mind, here are our Top 3 Favourite STEM Design Challenges
- Catapult Challenge
A crowd favourite, the catapult challenge never disappoints! The best part is that you need very few materials. A box of popsicle sticks, some rubber bands, and a single plastic spoon are all you need to get started! The challenge? Build a catapult using only those three materials. Make sure you limit the challenge to just these three materials. One of the main takeaways from the activity is that in the world of STEM you won’t always have access to every single material you need or wish you could have; sometimes you need to get creative!
We start off by talking about the history of catapults and showing some pictures of different designs. Then we tell kids what materials they will have and what their goal is. Before they get started, they need to draw an initial design. This helps them learn planning skills and also leads to powerful conversations about how plans change as your understanding of a problem deepens once you actually get into it.
Then, kids actually get started! We usually give them between 20-40 minutes to build out their catapult. What is so cool is just how many different designs kids can come up with when they only have limited materials. Finally, it’s time for a competition! Kids name their catapult and participate in 3 challenges. One to see how far they can fling a projectile (we recommend giant marshmallows) to measure distance, one to see how many plastic cups they can knock down in a pyramid to measure power, and one to see where on a target they can hit to measure accuracy. This is a great way to talk about how different designs can have different strengths and different weaknesses and just adds an element of fun and friendly competition to an already awesome challenge!
- Soap Box Car Challenge
If you really want to, you can take this challenge to the next level to actually build a human size soap box car (that would be super cool!) but we usually just do it as a mini-version. The goal? Using basic materials like popsicle sticks, dowels, and glue, to build a mini soap box car that can travel the furthest distance off a ramp. The soap box car needs to be able to hold – you guessed it! – a bar of soap.
As always, kids have to create an initial design before they get the materials. They then have anywhere from 1 hour to 2 hours, depending how deep you want to go, to build their soap box car! Another awesome task is actually building a ramp for the final competition!
When everyone is done, the competition begins! We set up our ramp, get some tape measures, and something to mark the final landing spot of our cars and then we just go! Kids love the thrill of the competition and it fosters a great conversation about stability, speed, aerodynamics, and more!
- Space Junk Challenge
We’ve talked about this challenge before, but it bears repeating as it is a great way to show how you can use design and STEM to solve real world problems! Space Junk is all the debris for broken down satellites and other objects in Earth’s orbit; there are more than 500,000 pieces being tracked and thousands more that aren’t and they pose a huge risk to spacecraft as they exit Earth’s orbit. There is no current solution to clean it all up, so let’s see what our kids can design to solve this problem!
We usually do it where kids work in small groups just to design their idea on a piece of paper, but we also have done it where kids actually have the time to build out a model or design it in some 3D CAD software. No matter what choice you make, the thought put into the solution and the planning is what counts!
One of the best things about this challenge is that it really showcases the value of silly ideas. We always take the time at the end of the challenge to show kids what real teams of scientists are actually working on to solve this problem, and you’d be surprised to see just how far a silly idea can take you! Giant nets, enormous vacuums, a space claw; all of these are at the foundation of real ideas by professional scientists, and the best part is they actually work! Use this as a jumping off point to talk about the power of simple and silly ideas to create real change in the world.
To ensure the learning is really worthwhile for all of these challenges, we always recommend using the full Design Thinking Process as a way to enhance the depth of the learning experience. We hope these ideas have given you some resources for activities to do with your kids or class! Have any great STEM design challenges that we didn’t mention? Let us know in the comments below!
Written & Authored by: Nicole Myers, Director of Curriculum & Business Development