Here’s What Happens When You Give Kids a Pile of Cardboard and a STEM Cart   

Jaws officially dropped.

Cardboard is the unsung hero of STEM education.

It’s cheap to get, easy to work with, and your imagination really is the limit of what you can make with it. With so many different ways to use cardboard in the classroom, we set out to challenge four educators to see what their students would create.

We sent them this FabricationStation Deluxe Makerspace Kit, which comes with cardboard, scissors, storage caddies, markers, a paper roll, and more. Plus everything fit on a wheeled cart that teachers and students can easily move. Then we told them to create!

Yep, there were no set rules or instructions. We wanted students to dream up something great and then make it. We had no idea what to expect, but we are WOWED by the results. Here’s a look at the four teachers who took on the challenge with their students.

Windmills give a lesson in design and engineering.

Carol Davis is an elementary STEM teacher at a magnet school in Decatur, Alabama, and she challenged each of her students to create a windmill, complete with working cardboard blades.   

“This is a large project (in size) compared to a lot of our STEM projects,” Davis says. “My students were excited about having a big challenge to think about and complete. They really put a lot of thought into the design and putting all the pieces together.”

The only requirement Davis gave her fifth graders was this: The base needed to be 12 inches wide. Then the rest, including creating a working windmill challenge, was up to them. This allowed her students to really customize the project and make it their own, experimenting with tall designs, short options, and everything in between. The entire project lasted a few different class segments. Each student had to put their math and engineering skills to the test, since they had to measure, design, and test every step of the way.

Students worked together to build cars with working wheels.

Hannah Schrempp does a lot of hands-on activities with her sixth graders in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and she used this project to help meet their state engineering standards.

“This was not an easy project,” Schrempp says. “The students had to work together to show a step-by-step process of building a car and record changes they made along the way. It was challenging, and there was a lot of problem-solving happening, but they loved that they were able to dream up a car.”

Schrempp set up the makerspace cart so that each student team had a designated organization bin. She said this really gave her students ownership in having a designated STEM area. Then they could come and go as needed to get their tools, supplies, and materials.  

Schrempp says it’s important to remember that STEM is not easy for all students. This is why hands-on projects like this one can really help in reinforcing concepts and putting ideas into action. “STEM allows students to use a different part of their brain to successfully complete a challenge,” she says.

She plans to keep using lessons like this to reinforce her sixth grade standards. And she’ll be using her STEM cart every Friday to give her students a new challenge.

Kindergarteners made their own puppet stage.

Even the youngest of learners loved the STEM cart and supplies. Stephanie Machado is a STEM-focused teacher in Winter Garden, Florida. She works with students all over her elementary school, and she chose to have some of her youngest learners take on this challenge.  

“I’m so happy I tried it with my kindergarteners,” Manchado says. “Initially it seems like something for older students, but it really allowed these students to create. They were cutting, measuring, and working together for their puppet show theatre.”

This project truly combined STEM with the arts. Machado says after her students constructed the main stage, they decorated the theatre and imagined (and crafted) puppets so they could later play pretend.

Since Machado works with students all over the school, she’s looking forward to wheeling the mobile cart into other grades and areas of the school to keep her students thinking critically and creating.  

STEM meets history in this student-led project.

When Danielle Donaldson received her cart and supplies, she challenged her fourth graders to think about what they wanted to create. Since they recently studied the Trail of Tears, students decided they wanted to make visual representations of Native American houses.

Before they started any building, students researched the housing style from the period. Then they studied the climate, region, soil, and other factors that related to the house before they starting building. It was a good lesson in science and history.  

Then when they got to the building part, they had plenty of other learning opportunities “The math was most challenging,” Donaldson says. “The groups had to draw and measure each individual part of their house. Some groups struggled with getting it exact, and they had to redo, but I explained to them that this is part of the engineering process.”

Even though it was an involved project and had challenges, Donaldson was impressed that her students stuck to it until the very end. She says it’s often big projects like this where she can really see her students grow and work together.

“Students need space where they can try different approaches, make mistakes, and have the opportunity to always try again,” she says.

All the teachers loved having a designated cart so their supplies were in one spot. It made it easy for students to take ownership of their learning. You can learn more about the items from this project right here.

What would your students create?   

Posted by Stacy Tornio

Stacy Tornio is a senior editor with WeAreTeachers. Nearly everyone in her family is a teacher. So she decided to be rebellious and write about teachers instead.

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