8 STEM Activities Perfect for Middle Schoolers
8 STEM Activities Perfect for Middle Schoolers
Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs are important in schools because they can help prepare students for these types of jobs when they enter the workforce. However, despite the heavy importance of STEM in creating innovative solutions in society, middle schools may only include science and math in their curriculum.
However, teachers and faculty can incorporate interactive STEM projects for middle schools into their classes, helping support existing courses and create new and exciting units.
Why Middle School STEM Programs Are Essential
Middle school is an important period for kids to learn and discover their interests. Because they are beginning to learn about subjects more in-depth and think about their futures, students start to recognize where their academic strengths lie and what they would like to continue to pursue in the future. Additionally, middle schoolers tend to lose interest in academics and prioritize their social lives.
Because of this, kids should receive exposure to many different subjects. Including units that cover several topics and applications can introduce kids to a subject they love and can grow their passion in. Especially as they prepare to enter high school, having a strong understanding of what they like and what they’re good at can help them chart a path for their future later.
Diversity in STEM
Introducing kids to STEM courses sooner can help break down negative stereotypes associated with the field. While STEM is a large field with many real-world applications, women only held around 27% of the jobs in 2019. Young girls often display a strong interest in STEM subjects and applications, but lack of accessibility to practice and use these skills deter them from seeking out STEM degrees and careers.
STEM programs tend to have very little racial diversity as well. Black Americans only make up around 9% of the STEM workforce, while white Americans account for 67%. Hispanic Americans account for 8% and Asian Americans for 13%. Introducing kids in middle school to STEM subjects can help reiterate that everyone has a place in the field, regardless of gender or race.
While middle school STEM programs can introduce kids to subjects and materials they will need to succeed in high school, college and beyond, students can also develop and hone essential soft skills, like problem-solving and critical thinking. Soft skills are more challenging to train, causing employers to seek out people with those skills already.
Because of the interactive nature of STEM, kids can practice and develop soft skills like critical thinking, problem-solving and innovation to complete assignments and activities. These soft skills were the most desired soft skills for employers in 2021. Communication and the ability to deal with complex problems and situations also rank highly with employers, and you can incorporate these factors into your STEM program.
STEM curriculum provides an excellent opportunity to teach students about a new area of study, but you can also use it to set them up for success with the soft skills they will need in the workplace as adults. Even if students choose other careers outside of STEM, they can still implement the soft skills they practiced in those classes.
What Does STEM Education for Middle Schoolers Look Like?
When developing your middle school STEM activities and programs, you should keep some factors in mind to help you continually engage your students and provide them with a thorough STEM program. Some ideas include:
- Teaching STEM units versus electives: Middle schools already require math and science courses, but many overlook technology and engineering in their curriculum. Some schools may offer STEM electives, which are great for students who already love these subjects, but middle schools should also aim to introduce students who don’t. By including units that cover basic introductory engineering and technology information, students can discover how they feel about the subjects.
- Incorporating real-world applications: While introducing middle schoolers to STEM can help spark interest, others may not see the relevance of the material. When creating your STEM program, courses and units, be sure to include real-world examples, applications and problems into lessons. Including how STEM reaches life outside of the classroom can help kids see the relevance and importance of their studies and help boost their interest in the course material, possibly leading them to their future careers.
- Focusing lessons as interactive: While learning introductory information is essential for teaching students what they need to know about STEM, it is a very hands-on field, so the classroom should reflect that. Activities and experiments can allow students to apply what they learn and develop critical problem-solving skills necessary for success in the STEM field. Breaking up lessons with fun and relevant activities where students take charge can also keep students interested and engaged in the subject matter.
- Promoting inclusivity: Since middle school STEM programs aim to diversify the field, creating a program available to all students at your school, including students with disabilities and English as second language students, is essential. Allow all your students to discover their passion and give them the foundation they need to succeed in future programs.
Incorporating these tips into your middle school can help you develop a strong STEM program that keeps students engaged and piques their interests in the subjects and education.
Technology and Engineering
Regardless of how you integrate technology and engineering into your STEM programs, be sure to have extensive introductory information to allow students to decide how they feel about the subject. Technology is a broad field, so you should try to cover several aspects, allowing students to understand all the different applications and try their hand at these topics. Some things you may want to consider include coding, web design and robotics.
Engineering is in a very similar situation to technology. Introducing students to the various engineering applications and allowing them to design and build using different engineering techniques is an excellent way to engage middle schoolers with engineering.
8 Middle School STEM Activities
If you want to incorporate some middle school STEM ideas into your courses, consider these eight activities to keep your students engaged and learning real-world STEM applications.
1. Balloon or Wind-Powered Cars
One great way to incorporate different laws of physics while testing your students’ engineering skills is to have them build vehicles. You can choose how the cars move depending on the subject matter and lessons and what you have available in your classrooms.
Balloon-powered cars are great for learning about Newton’s laws. In this experiment, your students will use a bottle, straws, skewers and bottle caps to create a car that can effectively roll when your students push it around.
To attach the wheels, the students will have to follow several steps:
- Start by cutting two straws slightly wider than the bottle and taping them to one side of the bottle.
- Cut two skewers and make them slightly longer than the straws.
- Teachers should pre-cut holes into four bottle caps to serve as the wheels. Students can push a wheel onto a skewer, insert the skewer in the straw and stick another wheel on the other end of the skewer.
- Repeat with two more bottle caps and another skewer for the other axle.
This part of the activity will already require some problem-solving to determine how to successfully attach the wheels and axles so the car moves well. Students might have to try different straw and skewer lengths or configurations to make their car move smoothly.
To power the car, they will stick a third straw up a balloon and tie it with a rubber band. After cutting a small hole in the bottle opposite the wheels, students will stick the other end of the straw into the bottle and out the top. Then have students blow up the balloon through the straw and stop air from releasing with their fingers. After releasing the straw and the car, students can observe Newton’s three laws of motion as the air leaves the balloon and moves the car forward.
A wind-powered car is similar to a bottle car, except that your students will use cardboard and paper instead of bottles. You’ll still use the same supplies to make axles and wheels, and your students will use paper with a skewer through it as a sail.
When they put their cars in front of a fan, students can observe how far they go and change design elements, like sail size, to see how that affects distance and friction. This gives students a hands-on approach to more physics concepts. You can place the cars in long hallways or classrooms and measure how far they go while having students guess why.
In both of these experiments, students will need to use problem-solving and critical thinking to ensure their car’s mechanics function and determine how to get the result they want. Further, you can group students to help develop their teamwork and communication skills and create a fun competition against other teams at the end of class.
2. Rubber Band Cars
Rubber band cars are a more complicated way to have your students test their engineering skills by building cars. For this middle school STEM idea, you will need a square of cardboard for your car’s body, much like with the wind-powered car. You will use the same straw and skewer axle method, but for the wheels, you will use CDs with the holes stuffed with pieces of sponge and secured together with tape.
Your students will need to cut a square at the front of their car that goes through the straw of their front axle to power this car. They will then tie a rubber band into a loop around the exposed axle skewer. In the car’s center, cut a slit and twist a paper clip through it. Then, attach the rubber band loop around it. Students will rotate the front wheels and release them to send the car rolling.
While this project is similar to the others, it requires more problem-solving. If your class hasn’t done the other car experiments, they may need to troubleshoot the axles to ensure their car rolls smoothly. They will need to test out how much sponge and tape they need to secure the wheels in place on the axles.
Lastly, if their car doesn’t roll or doesn’t go very far, they may need to look at the rubber band to make sure it’s secure or test the car on a surface with more friction.
This project gives students a way to interact with potential and kinetic energy. When they wind up their front axle, they create potential energy, which transforms into kinetic energy when they release it. Further, you can discuss how energy is neither created nor destroyed but becomes friction as the car stops, making this a great middle school STEM experiment.
3. Egg Drop Landers
This science activity for middle schoolers requires students to incorporate their knowledge of gravity and engineering together. Here, students will need to build a structure to keep an egg from cracking when dropped from high heights. You can determine a set list of supplies or let kids bring what they think will help them from home.
This activity encourages student creativity and problem-solving because there is no correct way to build the landers. Students can test their products throughout their determined time and make changes depending on the results. They will need to determine where the problem with their design is and how to fix it.
This activity involves gravity and physics, combining students’ understanding of science with engineering. You can discuss various scientific concepts as students work through multiple stages of their projects, allowing them to connect ideas with actions and results.
4. Straw Skyscrapers
For a fun and engaging engineering activity for middle schools, consider having your students build straw skyscrapers. In this activity, you’ll give your students a set amount of straws and tape, and you’ll ask them to build the tallest tower with those materials. You can determine how much of each you want to give them depending on your time and available materials, and you can make it a competition for extra fun.
This activity will allow students to practice what they learned in class about engineering to create a stable structure while stretching to high heights. Students will need to be creative and innovative to determine how to build their skyscraper that can stay standing while striving to make their tower the tallest. When time is up, students will see how everyone approached the project, highlighting everyone’s creativity.
This activity will also test their problem-solving skills. If their tower falls, they will need to determine the cause and how to avoid it as they try again. If they run out of materials, but still haven’t reached the height they wanted, they will need to develop a new plan to execute their goals while still maintaining a stable structure.
This activity will address how engineers design skyscrapers with height and stability in mind. Students can learn more about engineering while having fun and competing against classmates.
5. Candy Gears
If you want an easy and fun STEM lab activity for middle schoolers, try out this exercise with your students. You will need at least two lids, gumdrops, brads, and a marker in this activity. The two lids need to be different sizes, so one is slightly larger than the other. It might also be a good idea to poke holes in the lids ahead of time and put in the brads yourself if you want to avoid using scissors in the classroom.
Starting with the larger lid, have your students line the edge with gumdrops, so they are each just touching each other. Then, instruct them to remove every other gumdrop, so there are spaces between the ones left. With the leftover gumdrops, they can glue them to the lid’s edge. It can be helpful to mark the spots with a marker to keep track of where they need to go. They should then repeat this process with the other lid.
After having everything glued together, students can place their gears together with the gumdrops interlocking. Then, you can instruct them to try a series of tasks where they move the gears and note what happens. They can also draw a line marking the radius on each gear and see which one moves faster, and think about why. This activity can help cultivate their critical thinking skills by applying the concepts they learn in the classroom to their experiments.
As students work on their questions, you can guide them through real-world applications, comparing their candy gears to gears on bikes and in clocks. You can discuss how this allows people to create automated processes and even mention more complicated applications to understand how gears function in real life.
As a treat, you can let your students eat their extra gumdrops. Be sure to check with parents first about dietary restrictions or allergies to ensure students can safely eat the candies. Students might even hear about this from earlier classes, so they arrive excited and ready to learn when they get to your class.
6. Toothpick Bridges
Toothpick bridges are a common STEM project for middle schoolers. Many schools introduce students to engineering by asking them to build bridges from household materials like straws or toothpicks. This activity is great for middle schoolers because it tests their problem-solving and creativity skills and you can change many elements of it to fit your classroom needs.
Many teachers elect to use bridge designs for this project, though your students can design their bridges themselves. Students will use toothpicks to create the bridge’s structure and an adhesive, such as glue, to hold everything together — some teachers like to bring back gumdrops for a tasty take on the project. Students need to determine how much each material they need to create a stable and functional structure while staying within their material amount.
You can have students test the success of their bridges by judging how well they can hold objects of varying weights. You can start with something light, like a pencil, and slowly add weight until you reach your heaviest item, like a textbook. Even though toothpicks are thin, a good design will support even heavy items. This activity can introduce kids to how structures like bridges can stand while supporting heavy objects.
7. Edible DNA
You can incorporate biology into your STEM activities for middle schoolers through this edible DNA activity. Students will look forward to working with candy in the classroom, and you can introduce them to vital parts of the subject in a hands-on activity.
In this project, you will need gumdrops, licorice strings and toothpicks. The licorice will act as the strands of DNA and the gumdrops will function as the genes attached to it, which you can secure together by sticking the toothpicks through gumdrops at both ends. This activity can help your students visualize DNA and interact with the various components while discussing them.
8. DIY Marble Runs
Your students can have another exercise in engineering by building marble runs across the classroom. In this exercise, students can learn how to support and move the marble from one side of the room to the other using elements of science that they learned in previous classes, like gravity and the laws of motion.
As with egg drop loaders, you can use many types of materials for this exercise, and you can provide them for your students or ask them to bring what they think will be helpful. Cutting paper towel rolls in half is an excellent way to create a track that your students can use.
To make things more challenging, you can require your students to include specific elements, like hills or turns, to cause them to think and problem-solve as they determine how to get their marbles through those obstacles. Further, you can time how long each student’s track takes to encourage them to find a way to make their tracks more efficient from friendly competition.
Integrating STEM Activities Into Middle School Playgrounds
Playgrounds are a great place for middle school kids to explore STEM subjects. Teachers can bring students outside to use the open spaces to conduct experiments if they need more room than the classroom can provide. Further, schools can invest in dynamic and innovative equipment to explore movement and other scientific concepts they learned in class.
Whether students are guided by teachers or exploring by themselves, playground equipment can further classroom education in an environment where kids feel safe to test theories and observe results. Inclusive playground equipment allows students of all ages and abilities to play, explore and learn together.
Invest in Equipment That Inspires STEM With Miracle Recreation
Middle school is an excellent time to introduce kids to STEM. As they are learning their strengths and exploring their interests, teachers and faculty can help introduce them to something they will become passionate about for the rest of their life.
At Miracle, our Miracle Machines™ playground equipment allows kids to explore and apply STEM material they learn in the classroom to playtime. With dynamic moving equipment, kids of all ages can play with gears, gravity and other moving objects as they play. This interactive equipment fits into the hands-on experience kids need when learning about STEM, so your students can continue to learn outside the classroom as well.
Contact a Miracle representative today and discover how your school can benefit from Miracle playground equipment.