Activity of the Month

Table of Contents

August 2020: Paper Automata

A Resource Referral

Right now, there is a big focus on maintaining COVID19 health and safety measures while teaching STEM and Maker education. In addition, many teachers are being asked to adapt their STEM/Maker lessons to use readily available or cheap materials that students can use at home during distance learning. To that end, I wanted to share a resource I’ve enjoyed using for paper automata. 

Paper is cheap, readily available (double check) and these projects teach a variety of engineering principles while making functional art. Automata, for those who aren’t familiar, is basically a moving mechanical device. Rob Ives of, has an amazing database of templates that you can buy and print out to make a variety of paper automata. Or, you could browse his collection for inspiration and design your own. My example butterfly in the video clip was not printed from a template. It took me about 45 distracted minutes to make (distracted because I have a small child in the house!), and despite how it appears in the video, the wings move up and down together, not opposite. There’s some sort of optical illusion trickery going on! 

So check it out, print out a project or two, or just gain some inspiration, and get to making! 

At Home Resources List

Entrepreneurship and Sustainability



Engineering and Math

Art and Making

March "Magic" Science: Four Activities to Wow your Young Student

Candle Magic

As pictured, you can make the water level rise in an upside down jar by placing it over a lit candle sitting in some water. To do this activity, simple get a small bowl or rimmed tray, a candle, a lighter, and a small jar or glass that will fit over the candle and within the bottom of the bowl. Put enough water in the bowl that it reaches about halfway up the candle, then light the candle. When you place the small jar over the candle, it will snuff out the flame within a few seconds (no oxygen for the flame!), and when the flame extinguishes, the water will rise up into the jar. 

The science behind it: it would be easy to assume that the water rising is replacing the oxygen volume that got used up by the flame, but there’s also an element of temperature change here. Ultimately, the candle heats the air and expands it, which cancels the depletion of the oxygen temporarily and the water level stays down. When the oxygen is depleted, the candle goes out and the air cools. The volume of the air decreases and the water rises. 

Bonus candle activity: Making a Fan Move! If you have a small fan (think toy size fan) that spins without much resistance, you can try this activity as well. Simply place a couple of lit candles beneath a horizontally positioned fan, and watch how the warm air rising moves the fan blades slowly.

Bending Water

This next activity is a demonstration in the power of static electricity. All you need is a balloon, a willing participant, and a small steady stream of water from a faucet. It’s easy to set up; once you have a small steady stream of water going, simply rub the balloon on the arm or head of the willing participant (and watch the hair stand up), then place the balloon near the water. You should see the water bend towards the balloon, much like the hair standing up, thanks to the attractive power of static electricity. Static electricity is also the source of the small shocks touching a conductive object you can get in winter or with dry air. Static electricity happens when the surface of one object, such as a balloon, steals electrons from another surface, and holds it, making it negatively charged. That charge is what attracts the water, and when it is discharged all at once, that is when you feel those tiny shocks in the dry air. 

Balloon Magnet

Using the same power of static electricity as in the activity above, you can create a balloon magnet. You’ll need some tissue paper, some stick glue or tape, and a balloon. Cut out a figure on the tissue paper that you can attach part of it to the paper (I like to do a butterfly and only glue the middle of the butterfly). Once the glue has dried, charge the balloon as before, then move it over the tissue paper, which will rise up towards the balloon. You can make multiple pieces of art and watch how different shapes of tissue paper react to the balloon, such as butterfly wings vs a single hot air balloon. 

Energy Stick

This activity would require a small purchase, but if you can do this, it’s a ton of fun for kids. On the Steve Spangler Science store, Amazon, Walmart, and maybe even your local toy store, you can find either the energy stick or energy ball for about $8. Simply by touching the metal ends, you complete the circuit and it will light up and make a sound. You can do this with multiple people and test out different objects to see if they are conductive or not. I use this to introduce the concepts of conductive materials and an open vs. closed circuit in my circuits program. 

February 2020: Vibrobots

What is a vibrobot? 

In my Simple Robotics or Intro to Robotics classes, I always try to make time towards the beginning of the program to teach the difference between a robot and a machine like a vibrobot. A robot can be coded or directed in what to do based on the situation or surrounding environment. A machine, like a Hexbug, can only repeat a set action or group of actions. 

When you turn a Hexbug on, the vibrating motor and the legs of the Hexbug make it skitter across a flat surface. It will just move around until it comes to a barrier; you can direct the movements by building barriers but you can’t program its movements in advance or change the capabilities.  

This month’s activity is to explore the question “How can I direct a vibrobot’s movements in different ways?” 

Build a LEGO Maze for Hexbugs

Hexbugs, if you don’t have them already, are very affordable and provide hours of entertainment possiblities. They happen to be our cheapest (reusable) educational toy, as you can buy a pack of 5 Nano Hexbugs for about $20. I like to use the Nanos because they are small, and they have bristles on the top, which allow them to move vertically through a tube or roll of paper just barely wider than the hexbug itself. They move best on a hard, relatively smooth surface. You can buy tracks from the Hexbug company, or you can build your own! One safety note: they are small enough, as is the battery inside, that they are dangerous around infants and young children that may put them in their mouth. The battery is particularly dangerous if left within reach of a young child and swallowed, so please take appropriate precautions. 

To direct their movements, you need a barrier of some sort. This can be LEGOs, paper, and more- use your imagination! I’ve included a picture of a very simple LEGO maze that took one person about 15 minutes to build. If you have more people or more time, you can make it even more complex. You can see a video of this maze in action on our social media. 

Build your own Solar Powered Vibrobot!

There are many options for building a vibrobot; in our programs we’ve built bristlebots out of toothbrush heads and vibrating motors, as well as weighted our own motors and attached them to cups to create a cup vibrobot. However, my favorite has become the solar powered vibrobot option from Brown Dog Gadgets. It’s also fairly affordable, particularly for at home use. They also have bristlebot sets and other fun solar projects, as well as circuit sets. 

January 2020: At Home, Screen Free Coding lessons

Why teach coding? 

Mitch Resnick, a professor at MIT Media Lab and a co-creator of Scratch, a programming tool for students, offers the following: “Many people think of learning and education as a process of delivering information or delivering instruction. Other people see learning and education as student-centered—learning is about exploring, experimenting, creating. [The computer] is a wonderful device for delivering information, but it can also be a wonderful device for creating, exploring, and experimenting…. I think the reasons for learning to code are the same as the reasons for learning to write. When we learn to write, we are learning how to organize, express, and share ideas. And when we learn to code, we are learning how to organize, express, and share ideas in new ways, in a new medium.” 

Screen Free Coding Activity 1: Back to Back Building Challenge

To do this activity, you’ll need two people and two sets of LEGOs, with each person having the same 8-10 pieces (color and size). For example, each person would have a gray square, a blue 3×2 piece, a green 8×2 piece, etc. With the LEGO pieces, the partners should sit back to back or with a divider in between them (so that they cannot see the other person’s LEGO creation). One person, the programmer, will build a small structure out of their pieces and then communicate to their partner, the robot, how to build their structure one piece at a time. At the end, they will compare their creations (as in the picture above), and then switch roles. You can modify this activity with different LEGO pieces to make it simpler or harder. For example, an easier set would be all 2×2 squares and 2×4 rectangles of different colors, and maybe only 6 pieces total. By increasing the variety and number of pieces, the harder it will be. This activity is meant to highlight the importance of clear directions and communication. Appropriate for kids in grades 2+ that are confident in their colors and left and right. 

Activity 2: If-then Simon Says

Similar to the well known Simon Says game, this activity starts very simple for kids with 4 or less “If I do this, you do this” commands. The simplest level is to do it just like Simon Says, where the Computer copies what the Programmer (Simon) does. The next level would be for the Programmer to teach the Computer to do something different than the Programmer, but still start and stop when they do. This one works the brain because they’ll hear something different than they are seeing. Next, do a speed round for fun! You can add another level to do “If-then-else” commands. For example,  the Programmer commands “If I raise my right arm, Then you raise your left arm, Else raise your right foot.”  Appropriate for kids in grades K-2. 

Activity 3: Grid Coding

There are many variations of this activity, with the two main ones involving moving a person through a grid like a maze to avoid certain squares or moving them through the grid to get a specific square for a reward. The setup is essentially the same: creating a large 6×6 or 9×9 grid, with certain squares filled in. You can do this outside with chalk on pavement, or inside with tape on the floor. The programmer will guide the robot through the grid using commands such as “Turn left” or “Move 3 blocks forward”. The objective is either to avoid squares and go from a start to finish, or to reach certain squares. On the latter, one fun version is for the programmer to be rewarded for correctly coding the robot to the designated square by getting to spray silly string or water (outside only) at the robot. Other advanced variations include: only allowing certain movements from the robot (for example, only 90* turn to the right and forward movement only), or asking the programmer to give the robot the entire coding sequence in advance. This activity really highlights the coding skills of developing sequence and logic in commands. Two versions of this activity can be found here (outside water squirter version) and here (Rescue Mission). Appropriate at various levels for kids K-8. 

Screen Free Robot: Ozobot

One of the robots we use to teach coding in our programs is the Ozobot, a small robot that can be coded by colors. This is a great screen free robotics opportunity to teach coding, and it definitely encourages more artistic creativity that coding on a computer, putting the “A” in STEAM. Once kids feel comfortable coding by drawing the codes with markers, the Ozobot Evo can also be used with the computer to code. It does cost $99 for one of them, and you can purchase them from their website here or on Amazon. Appropriate for ages 6+. 

These are just four options to start you out; check out some of the links below for more activities and resources for screen free coding activities. 



December 2019: Make Smthng

Rather than give you a guided activity this month, knowing spending is likely already higher than normal and time is in short availability, I’m going to challenge you all to consider making something instead of buying it, be it food, decorations, something wearable, etc. 

There is a global movement, led by the Maker community, called MAKE SMTHNG, that aims to reduce consumerism and increase making and creativity with everything from food to fashion. You can read more below, taken from their website. 


MAKE SMTHNG is an international series of fun, hands-on events that celebrate creativity and use a positive message to challenge consumerism and its impact on the climate. The flagship event, MAKE SMTHNG Week, coincides with Black Friday and the start of the Christmas shopping season and hacks a mega-moment for consumerism.

MAKE SMTHNG empowers people by helping them improve their skills or by teaching them new ones – how to fix, upcycle and create special and unique things from reused materials. We believe that if you have made something, you will buy more consciously next time, whether it’s food, fashion or mobile phones. Your experience of creating an original will lead you to reflect on your consumption patterns and you will be more likely to find a way to repair, care for and share your goods before throwing them out. It is essential that we restore this culture in our communities and make spaces, where skills and knowledge are shared, an essential part of our urban life.


Many of you already practice the art, craft and joy of making and doing it yourself:

cooking, mending clothes, fixing electronics, building toys, upcycling, growing your own food, making your own cosmetics and cleaning products, going plastic-free, aiming for zero waste, or sharing your clothes, bikes and homes with each other. Let’s share our skills, knowledge and experiences with each other and discover and practice new ones.

Find out more here >>

November 2019: 3Doodler Pen

From Rosie Art Shop

Putting the "A" in STEAM

I will admit I wasn’t sure whether to share all the goodness that is 3Doodler pens now vs after the holidays, as getting a 3D pen would make an awesome Christmas/holiday gift, but ultimately decided to share it now because:

  • You can participate in a really cool project called 3D Giving Day 
  • Opportunity to make holiday decorations or gifts
  • Current (and likely upcoming) sales
  • You could also get it as a holiday gift and wait to open it up (though you’d miss out on some of the above)

So what is the 3Doodler Pen? It’s a 3D pen. 

There’s actually two of them, the Start pen (designed for ages 6-13) and the Create pen (ages 14+). I’ve only used the Start pen, so I’ll be keeping my review/suggestions focused on that one. The 3Doodler Start pen melts the plastic at a really low temperature, so low that you can actually touch the tip and the melted plastic without burning yourself (and no, I don’t have some ridiculous high temperature tolerance), making it safe for kids. The other feature that sold me on using these in our programs is that the plastic is corn-based, and is actually compostable should you have scraps or a creation you don’t want to keep. Given that we’re always seeking the more sustainable approach, one of my first questions about using 3Doodler was actually the plastic and waste generated. Clearly, they were thinking about this too in designing the pen and plastic! Besides all of this, the 3Doodler Start is a great tool for being creative and for building STEM projects (more info below). 

3D Giving Day explained: 

“This year, International 3D Printing Day and Giving Tuesday both fall on December 3rd, and we thought this would be the perfect time to share your Doodles with those who have never been able to experience them before. We are calling this day 3D Giving Day, a first-of-its kind humanitarian day centered around giving 3D creations.

Could you experience the humor and horror of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! without seeing the grumpy grinch himself? With 3Doodler pens, it is possible to bring these remarkable illustrations to those who have never seen them before. By feeling 3D outlines, people with visual impairments across the world can experience these classic characters in a new way. We have teamed up with Build a Better Book to make this dream a reality. We’re asking classrooms, artists and individuals across the globe to join us in making cherished illustrations accessible.” 3Doodler

The ESSTEAM Lab is entering a hiatus from leading programs, but we are still going to participate in 3D Giving Day by doing a few illustrations of our own, and then partnering up with the local library and makerspace program. We’ll lend out our 3D Start pens, and let the students enrolled in that program work on their illustrations. I’m super excited to see how this all turns out, and am actually counting down the days for this because it’s such a cool program. I’d highly encourage you to participate; for more info you can check out this link: Giving in 3D

Using 3Doodler Start for STEM and Creativity

One of the great things about 3D design is that you can design anything from a functional piece, to something artistic or decorative, or even building something with a STEM focus like a bridge or marble roller coaster. There’s a lot of possibilities, and 3Doodler also has kits and molds to help create some great projects. So your “Activity of the Month” is to create what your heart desires! Use one of the kits for a guided project or create your own thing. 

Buying 3Doodler

There are several places to buy 3Doodler pens and kits for guided projects: Amazon, Target, WalMart, and of course their website. I’ve included a few links below (just click on the images). For full disclosure, the Amazon links are affiliate links, meaning if you go through those links and make a purchase, ESSTEAM Lab will receive a small compensation at no cost to you. I do highly recommend check out 3Doodler’s website, especially the “Deals” section of their Shop, since they rotate through putting various kits or plastic sets on sale. 

3Doodler Start Shop

October 2019: Spooky Reaction

Vinegar + Baking Soda: who hasn’t had fun with this reaction? 

If I were to ask what happens when baking soda combines with vinegar, most people would be able to answer with some variety of “fizz”, “bubbles”, “a mess”, etc. It’s the basis of the well known and loved science fair volcano. But there’s three extra things you can do with this set-up of the reaction besides just ooh and ahh over the fun reaction. This is a great weekend or after school activity using materials you likely already have on hand, and you can add the fun Halloween twist to it to make it “new”. If you do this activity, don’t forget to take some fun pictures! Feel free to share them using our social media hashtag, #MakingSTEAMsustainable. 

For your basic setup, you’ll need:

  • Baking Soda (~2 Tbs)
  • Vinegar (~1/2 c)
  • Balloon
  • Narrow-ish mouthed bottle (a glass bottle works best)
  • Spoon
  • Optional but helpful: funnel, rubber band, thermometer, pH indicator or test strip, and food coloring.

You may be wondering: why the thermometer in the optional materials list? 

One of the three components to this activity is measuring the temperature change from the reaction. The other two are comparing the density of a CO2 filled balloon with the air around us, and measuring if there is a pH change when CO2 mixes with water. 


  1. Put ~1/2 c vinegar into the bottle 
  2. Measure and record the temperature of the vinegar. You can do this just by feel or by using a thermometer if you have one available. Do you think it will get warmer or colder after the reaction? 
  3. Spoon about 2 Tbs baking soda into the balloon (this is where the funnel is helpful)
  4. Place the balloon over the mouth of the bottle and secure it with the rubber band, as in the third picture.
  5. When ready, lift the balloon up and allow the baking soda to fall into the bottle and enjoy the reaction!
  6. Halloween twist: use a white balloon and draw your best ghost face on the inflated balloon! Or use an orange balloon and make it a pumpkin, or design your own balloon based Halloween decoration. 

Question #1: how did the temperature change? After the fizz has died down a little, go ahead and feel the bottle or measure the liquid temperature. Did the result surprise you? The science behind this (source: American Chemical Society) is that every chemical reaction is accompanied by a change in temperature. Sometimes the change is barely noticeable and other times it’s extreme. Sometimes the temperature goes up and other times it goes down. In this reaction, Baking soda reacts with the vinegar to produce carbon dioxide gas, sodium acetate, and water. It took energy to break the baking soda and vinegar apart and energy was released when the carbon dioxide, sodium acetate, and water were formed. Since more energy was needed to break the baking soda and vinegar apart, the temperature went down. This reaction is called an endothermic reaction. 

Question #2: If you tie off the balloon, which is now filled with CO2 gas, and let it go in mid-air, will it sink, float, or rise? The chemical equation for the reaction between baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) and vinegar (acetic acid), looks like: NaHCO3 + HC2H3O2  NaC2H3O2 + H2O + CO2

In English, the reaction produces CO2 gas, liquid water, and sodium acetate. The CO2 is what blows up the balloon and fills it. If you take off the balloon from the bottle and tie it off with the CO2 in it, you can then test the question above: will it sink, float, or rise? 

Question #3: If you were to blow CO2 into water, how would that change the pH of the water? The baking soda and vinegar reaction is an acid/base reaction (vinegar=acetic acid). pH is a measurement of the hydrogen (H) in an aqueous, or water containing, solution. Measured on a scale of 0-14, acids are below a pH of 7, and bases are above, with 7 being neutral. How do you think adding CO2 gas to water could change the pH? If you have a way to measure pH, such as an indicator, pH meter, or test strip, you can find out. If you’re careful and talented, you could cut a small opening in the neck of the balloon while pinching it off, place it over a straw, then release the pinch and let the gas bubble into the water. Afterwards, you can measure the pH. If you don’t want to deflate the balloon, given that humans exhale CO2, you can simply blow bubbles through a straw into water for about a minute to get a pH change without destroying your CO2 balloon. 

I hope you enjoyed this activity! Please feel free to provide any feedback or ask questions about these tests. 

September 2019: Squishy Circuits

Did you know that playdough is conductive?

Add an LED or two and battery with wires and you’ve got yourself a hands-on circuit building activity. This is a great at home and hands on activity for kids to explore building circuits. Possible learning experiences include how to build different types of circuits (like simple or parallel), how to correctly position the positive and negative anode of the battery to ensure energy flow, a short circuit, and conductivity. 

  • Recommended ages: 5+ 
  • Time: 30 minutes+
  • Materials you may already have: Playdough and several AA batteries or a 9V battery
  • Materials you may need to buy: LEDs (~$8 for 20), battery holder/wires (~$6/2 for AA or ~$5/5 for 9V), modeling clay (~$6/2lbs); total cost ~$20 for up to 2 kids. 


Disclaimer: I have personally used all products listed below. Whenever possible, I use an affiliate or referral link*, for which the ESSTEAM Lab will receive a small compensation when you purchase from my links (clicking on the product image), at no extra cost to you.


Most playdough is conductive, meaning energy or an electrical current can flow through it. If you don’t have any playdough, you can make your own! Here’s a good recipe:

  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/4 cup salt
  • 3 tbsp cream of tartar or 9 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • Optional: food coloring (a few drops)

Place all of the above into a pot, and mix well over medium heat, stirring continuously, until a dough ball forms. Carefully remove the pot from the heat and dump the play dough back into your mixing bowl. Wait several minutes for the mixture to cool. Once it has cooled down, knead (mix the dough with your hands) in additional flour  (~1/2 cup) until desired consistency is formed. It will keep well in the fridge in an airtight container for several weeks and can be used for play beyond squishy circuits!


The LEDs are the lights of the squishy circuit. You can use anything from 3mm to 10mm LEDs, as long as they have the wire legs to “plug” into the playdough. Alternatively, you can also use LEDs that have flexible wire legs with an insulating cover. However, what I recommend is a pack of 10mm wire leg LEDs, and if you want to make it even more fun, get the color changing LEDs! I’ll put two options to purchase below. 

Color Changing 10mm LEDs

Batteries and wires

At minimum, you’ll need 3V of power going into your circuit. However, I recommend 6-9V of power, which you can build through 4 AAs (each AA is 1.5V) or a 9V battery. Once you have your battery, you’ll need a battery holder or connecting wires to power your squishy circuit. Below, I’ll show tried and true battery holders and connectors that you can purchase. 

Modeling Clay

Using modeling clay adds an extra element to working with squishy circuits, as it is an insulator. You can certainly explore squishy circuits without modeling clay but it allows you to build more complete structures, such as the butterfly in the example above. If you were to join the two halves of playdough together, you’d create a short circuit, but having the clay in between solves that issue. I’ve put a link below to some good modeling clay (again, you can use this for play beyond squishy circuits!). OR you could also make insulating playdough with the following recipe:

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3 Tbsp Vegetable Oil
  • 1/2 cup Purified Water (Deionized)
  • Optional: Food coloring (a few drops; use a different color than homemade conductive dough!)

Mix the flour, sugar, and vegetable oil in a mixing bowl.  Stir until all oil is absorbed. Pour small amounts of the purified water into the mixture and stir until water is absorbed.  Repeat this until ball forms. As necessary, knead small amounts of flour into the ball until it is no longer sticky.

Tips for Exploring Squishy Circuits

As always, safety first!

Kids should be supervised with the batteries (they can deliver a slight shock if both wires touch the skin, and if the two wires are left touching, they could begin to smoke or spark). If you elect to make your own conductive playdough, it should be a mostly adult-conducted activity, since the dough will be hot and if you’re not careful to stir continually, it can start to burn in the pot. 

Basic Set Up

Separate your playdough into two lumps, plug a battery wire into each, and use the LED legs as a bridge between the playdough. Make sure to put the slightly longer + LED leg into the playdough with the red + wire going into it. To reiterate, red wire is +, longer LED leg is +, and they must match in order for the circuit to work. 

Short Circuit

If your playdough pieces are touching, or if you have another conductive material (such as aluminum foil) connecting the playdough, the current won’t make the energy leap into the LEDs. I like to explain it such that the LED acts as a bridge to complete the circuit; if there’s no need for the bridge, the energy doesn’t go up into the light. Here’s where the modeling clay helps- you can make a solid object, with two halves of conductive playdough separated by the modeling clay. Again, I recommend using a different color playdough vs clay to make sure you know which is which. 

Other than these lessons, I like to leave squishy circuits open to the kids to play with and learn from. You could give them challenges such as building a parallel circuit or giving them a specific creative prompt of something to build. 

We’d love to see your Squishy Circuit creations! You can find us on social media (Facebook and Instagram) and share your pictures or videos using #MakingSTEAMsustainable