At Girl Scouts, we know that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) careers are important for our changing world. Scientists and engineers design, invent, research, and create solutions to problems that impact everyone. We also know that girls are often underrepresented in these fields. Research shows that engaging girls in STEM early on can help them build confidence, learn problem-solving skills, and see themselves as scientists.
One fun way to engage your girl in STEM is through design and build challenges. These challenges have a simple premise: kids are presented with a scenario or problem along with a list of supplies to use and their goal is to meet the parameters of the challenge using only those supplies. Although this sounds simple, kids can occupy themselves for hours as they draw out their ideas, test theories, and work to improve their designs. Try one (or more) of these design challenges at home with your Girl Scout and see some amazing thinking and learning in action!
We have included links for inspiration or to help you understand the challenge, but encourage your Girl Scout to give it a try on her own before looking to others for ideas.
Explore These Tips
Engineers often work as part of a team. If your Girl Scout has siblings, encourage them to work together. If not, maybe she can chat with troop members or friends about ideas over a video call.
Are You Stuck?
These challenges aren’t meant to be super easy. Remind your Girl Scout that it’s okay to fail. In fact, that’s how engineers learn. When something doesn’t go right, it tells you something about what to change for the next idea. Celebrate failure and encourage critical thinking about what to improve next time. Here are some questions you could ask to help prompt your Girl Scout to think deeper:
- What went wrong? Why do you think that is?
- What real-life problem is this challenge similar to? What is the real thing made of? How do you think it’s made?
- What do you think would happen if _____?
If your Girl Scout finishes very quickly, or wants an extra challenge, try modifying the rules of the challenge a bit. Here are some ideas for how to change things up:
- Take away a supply that was an important part of the original design.
- Add an extra rule or encourage your Girl Scout to make the design better in some way. Can it be stronger? Taller? Use fewer materials? Think about the real-life applications of these questions. Why might a company want a design to use less or different materials? Why might it matter how much weight a boat can hold?
After completing an activity, talk with your Girl Scout about how it went. Kids learn more when they think about and process what they did after it’s over. Here are some ideas for what to talk about:
- What worked for you? What didn’t?
- What would you change if you did this challenge again?
- What would you like to learn more about that might help you if you did this again?
- How did you choose which materials to use or which plan to try?
- What did you do when you got stuck?
A note on supplies—most of these challenges can be done with whatever household recyclables or supplies you might have around. Substitute or modify to make do with what you have already.
The Strongest Boat
Supplies: Pennies or other coins, large bowl or tub of water, paper, aluminum foil, tape, plastic or paper straws, plastic bags.
Directions: Make a boat that can hold as many coins as possible without any of the coins falling into the water or the boat sinking.
Marble Roller Coaster
Supplies: Marbles, toilet paper or paper towel tubes, paper, assorted cardboard, duct tape or other strong tape, scissors.
Directions: Create a roller coaster for a marble! Tape together tubes, paper, and cardboard to create a track that will keep a marble from falling off the sides or stopping at the bottom of a hill. Can you make a loop-de-loop? How about a coaster with multiple up-hills?
Oil Spill Cleanup
Supplies: Large bowl of water, oil (vegetable, olive, or any kind will work), straws, paper, cups, cardboard, rubber bands, string.
Directions: Oh no! Oil has spilled into the ocean. It’s your job to clean up as much of the oil as possible while leaving the water be. This is a very real challenge scientists have to figure out when there is an oil spill. If you’re stuck, read up on some of the solutions scientists have used to clean up oil in the past. Can you make anything similar?
The Strongest Bridge
(Option 1: Paper and tape or Option 2: Popsicle sticks and glue)
Supplies: Option 1: Paper, tape, 2 large books or blocks, coins to use as weights for testing. Option 2: Popsicle sticks and glue (hot glue works best, but other glues can work too—just let the bridge dry thoroughly before testing), books or other items to use as weights for testing.
Directions: Set up the two books or two chairs about a foot apart. The challenge is to create a bridge between the two that will hold as much weight as possible. Extra challenge: Can you make a bridge that uses fewer materials but still holds the same amount of weight?
Supplies: Plastic container (such as a bucket, Tupperware, or large bowl) to be the “house,” cardboard, tape, aluminum foil, plastic bags.
Directions: The container is a house, and your goal is to build a roof for the house that will withstand a rainstorm (water sprinkled on the house from above). Check the inside of your house to see if it’s dry when the storm is over! Extra challenge: Can your roof hold up to strong winds (a fan) as well as rain?
Research About Engaging Kids (and especially girls) in STEM
- Keeping Girls in STEM: 3 Barriers, 3 Solutions
- Teaching Kids to Think Like Engineers
- SciGirls Strategies: How to Engage Girls in STEM
Looking for more at-home STEM activities?
Robin Webb – Robin is the Program Coordinator—GSLE at Girl Scouts River Valleys, which means she mostly coordinates Journey events. She graduated from Macalester College with a degree in Biology and minors in Education and Environmental Studies. She grew up going to Girl Scout camp in Wisconsin and has also worked as a Trip Specialist at Camp Northwoods. She loves being outside, learning about science, playing roller derby, baking, and spending time with family and friends.