As a middle school STEM teacher and a mom of two teens pursuing engineering, I know getting kids involved in hands-on STEM activities is critical for taking on the world’s challenges. Answers to climate change issues, public health challenges, AI, and national security will come from kids with STEM skills who are ready to tackle real-world problems.
Kids are born loving to build, create, and invent but they’re not getting critical STEM education they need to pursue those interests. Pre-pandemic studies show elementary students were only getting less than 30 minutes of science per day. Data shows those numbers were worse in schools serving low-income communities.
Even in schools with resources to invest time in STEM education, the project-based real-world work kids need to develop a love of science rarely happens. It’s so much easier to get kids excited about STEM if you can get them to ask questions about things they’re interested in. Supporting their love of inquiry is how they’ll find the answers and develop critical skills.
That’s why I’m so pleased that the YMCA hosts its annual THINGAMAJIG® INVENTION CONVENTION to unlock kids’ maker creativity and real-world problem-solving skills.
About Thingamajig Invention Convention
This year’s Thingamajig® offers more than a dozen different ways kids (ages 5-14) everywhere can do hands-on creative challenges and expand STEM experiences into the summer.
With multiple in-person experiences and virtual options, there’s a number of different ways to get involved. Register your child now and get in on the fun! bit.ly/thingamajig2023
To get you and your kids into the STEM and STEAM mindset, YMCA has shared some warm-up activities, like solar ovens, hot air balloons, and DIY bouncy balls below. Pick your favorites to try out, get inspired, and then take on one of the Thingamajig challenge topics listed below. You’ll see the rules and guidelines on the official site at bit.ly/thingamajig2023.
Thingamajig Activity Timeline
- Now — July 21st — Virtual Challenge
- Makers across the country get to work building their solutions to a range of challenges (listed below). Visit bit.ly/thingamajig2023 for registration and challenge details.
- July 10-14 – Camp Challenge
- YMCA branches in and around DC offer a special Thingamajig Camp to help kids team up on larger projects, and counselors can lend a helping hand.
- July 27-28th – Expert Review and Feedback
- A panel of experts from different fields will provide meaningful feedback on each project to keep students active and engaged in STEAM skill-building. The panel will also pick entries to receive special recognition in each category and overall.
- August 2nd – In-person Invention Convention
- In person hands-on Science Fair/ Festival at the US Patent and Trade Office give all registered participants to meet experts, try their hands at something new, view demonstrations, work on individual and team challenges, and get inspired to create their next big idea!
- Wednesday, August 2, 2023 (9am–3pm) at The United States Patent & Trademark Office 600 Dulany Street, Alexandria, VA 22314
- Amazing Action Contraption — Have a blast as you challenge yourself to re-engineer an everyday object into something totally different. What cool thingamajig can you come up with?
- App to You — Create an app that can make a difference for someone special.
- Green Thing — Take a walk outside and discover a cool invention or green technology that will help to improve your neighborhood.
- How on Earth — The earth is taking a beating. What new innovation can you create that can help make the environment better for everyone.
- iCan…Play — Everyone deserves to play. Engineers an amazing game or toy that allows kids of all abilities to have fun while being safe.
- JOY — Be a JOYMAKER by creating something unique that can make someone smile, laugh or brighten their day.
- Limb Friendly — With a guiding heart and creative hands, design a helpful invention that will be appreciated by someone missing a limb or someone who needs a little extra help. What incredibly wonderful invention can you design?
- Paper Made — Have fun as you use only paper or cardboard to create that really cool eco-friendly invention?
- Ready, Set, GO — Put Newton’s Law of Motion in action. Using recycled materials and your engineering mind, design an awesome mobile creation that can spin, roll, rock and go. What awesome creation can you rev up?
- Robot Magic — Robots big, robots small, design your amazing robot to perform a task that can assist in making the world better.
- Scrap Art — Use your imagination and creative energy to design a masterful piece of art from scraps and other found objects. Sculpt it, frame it – find your way to the THINGAMAJIG Masterpiece Gallery.
- Shoes, Shoes, New Shoes — Be the designer of some new and exciting environmentally friendly shoes. Put your name on the next new design of some really cool footwear.
- Zero Waste Trashion Fashion — Looking to become the next Zero Waste Fashion Engineer? Now’s your chance to take fashion and the environment to heart. Design your incredible fashion from things found and unfound as you get ready to hit the runway in style.
STEAM Warm up
Use any or all of these at-home hands-on activities to get your S.T.E.A.M. brain revved up and running! Please note that Thingamajig requires original work and unique inventions, so these warm-up activities do not qualify as challenge entries but they’re perfect for hands-on summer STEM learning!
MAKE AN AIR QUALITY MONITOR
- Card stock in a bright color – (1 sheet per monitor)
- White graph paper or paper with four 3” squares drawn onto it
- Petroleum jelly
- Sharpened pencil
- Magnifying glass
Set up your air quality monitor:
- Cut around the outside perimeter of the four squares together so the excess paper is trimmed away.
- Glue the graph paper or paper with squares drawn on it to the card stock. Label the squares 1, 2, 3, and 4 and add the date and location of where the monitor will be placed.
- Spread a thin layer of petroleum jelly over the white paper.
- Using the tape, affix your air quality monitor in your home, in your classroom or school hallway, or outside.
- Make multiple air quality monitors and hang them in various places. Look for high traffic vs. low traffic areas, indoors vs. outdoors, etc.
- Let the monitors sit, undisturbed, for 3 to 5 days.
- After 3 to 5 days, count up the particles in each square and record your results. (You might need to use a magnifying glass to help you see some of the smaller particles.)
BUILD YOUR OWN BOUNCY BALL!
It’s time to bounce into family fun and we have just the challenge for you! With some simple ingredients you can make your very own homemade bouncy balls.
- Warm water
- Liquid glue, such as Elmer’s Glue-All
- Food coloring
- Bowl of ice water
- Small zip-top bags, 1 per participant
- Paper cups, 2 per participant
- Measuring spoons
- Stir sticks
Make your bouncy ball:
Into the “borax” cup, add:
- 2 tablespoons warm water
- 1/2 teaspoon borax
Stir to dissolve the borax.
Into the “glue” cup, add:
- 1 tablespoon glue
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- Several drops of food coloring
Stir to mix in the color and break up the cornstarch lumps. Pour about half of the borax solution into the glue cup.
Let it sit; do not stir for about 15 seconds.
What do you see? Stir the dough into a clump, then remove it from the cup and knead it with your hands.
How does the dough feel? Is it slimy? Sticky? Dry? Does the feeling change as you knead it? Roll the dough into a ball.
BAKED S’MORES! (SOLAR OVEN)
A flameless s’more? Look no more! With a bit of patience, foil, and a bright sunny day you can cook your own s’mores in a solar oven.
- Shoebox or pizza box
- White glue
- Wooden skewer
- Plastic wrap (same size as lid of box)
- Black construction paper or cardboard (same size as bottom of box)
- Aluminum foil (enough to line inside of box)
- 2 graham cracker squares
- 1 marshmallow
- 1 square of milk chocolate
Set up the solar oven:
- Leaving about a 1-inch margin, cut three sides around the lid of a shoebox to create a smaller flap in the lid.
- Cut aluminum foil to the size and shape of the four vertical sides of the box and the smaller top flap. Glue the foil to the inside of the box sides and the underside of the top flap.
- Cut and glue a piece of black construction paper or cardboard to the inside bottom of the box.
- Cut and glue or tape plastic wrap to the underside of the larger lid of the box.
- Prop the smaller lid flap open at about a 45-degree angle using the wooden skewer; tape in place.
- Place the solar oven in a sunny location and position it so the sun reflects off the flap.
NOTE: Because solar ovens depend on sunlight, this activity works best on a sunny, non-windy day.
- Lightweight 30-gallon trash bags*
- Hair dryer
*The best bags for this adventure are 30-gallon size, 0.5 mil thickness, which is very thin for a large trash bag. Look for the cheapest large trash bags; they will be the thinnest
What happens with “regular” air inside the bag? Wave the bag around to fill it with air. Quickly gather up the open end to close off the bag. Hold the filled bag upright.
Think about this: Does the bag stay up or flop over? The air in the bag is the same temperature as the air in the room. The weight of the plastic is not supported by this air. The bag flops over.
What happens if we heat the air inside the bag?
This adventure can be done with just one trash bag per participant.
Prepare your bag:
Tie 4 small knots along the edge of the open end of the bag to make the opening smaller, about 6 inches (15 cm) in diameter.
- Using a piece of thread about 5 feet (1.5 m) long, tie it to one of the knots.
- Tie a small object (key, large binder clip, etc.) to the other end of the thread. This is the weight to keep your hot air balloon from floating out of reach
You’re now ready to test your hot air balloon!
- Point the hair dryer into the opening of the bag, being careful not to allow the plastic to touch the hair dryer.
- Turn the hair dryer on its hottest setting
Notice that the air inside the bag is warming up and the bag is filled to capacity. Could you get the bag this full with room temperature air? Does the bag want to flop over, or does it seem to hold itself upright?
Gently touch the outside of the bag to feel the warmth. Count slowly to 30 and turn off the hair dryer. Watch as the bag rises up on its own.
How long will yours stay afloat? Log your results in your science adventure journal.
The cool balloon flopped over. The warm balloon rose up. Why is that? The heat from the hair dryer causes the air molecules to move around and spread apart, so there are fewer molecules inside the bag. That makes the air inside the bag (the hot air) lighter than the cooler air outside the bag, so the bag rises. When the warm air cools off or escapes from the bag, the bag drops to the ground. A real hot air balloon stays afloat because it has a gas burner under the opening of the balloon that continuously heats the air inside.
Show off your paper airplane skills by folding paper into planes and seeing whose plane goes farthest. Try different folds and types of paper to see who can create the best plane! Once you’ve found which can go farthest, change the objective and run more tests. Whose plane can hit a target? Whose plane can carry a paperclip payload? Whose plane is least impacted by wind outdoors? The challenges and re-designs can go on for as long as you like.
Thinking outside the box:
Not all things that travel through the air look like a “plane.” What about a paper spitball, or a dart? There are no right or wrong answers. Just be sure to set the challenge parameters and objectives clearly.
With just a bit of paper and some creative folding how strong can you make your bridge?
- Index cards
- Pennies (about 50)
- Two stacks of books of equal height
Set up the experiment:
- Position two supports so the gap between them is 4 inches (10 cm)
- Form the three different bridge designs, each from one fresh index card.
- Flat beam: No folds, just lay index card across blocks
- Girder: Fold long sides up to form a channel
- Truss: Fan-fold the card the long-way
Predict the results:
Rank the bridge designs by what you think their relative strength is. The strongest bridge gets a rank of 1, the next strongest a rank of 2, the weakest a rank of 3
Run the test!
- Lay your bridge across the gap.
- Load pennies in a stack, a few at a time, until the bridge collapses.
- Record the number of pennies the bridge supported.
- Repeat for all bridge designs, then rank the bridges again based on which one turned out to be the best-suggested design (the strongest) down to the weakest.
Can you make a bridge that is even stronger? What if you added some tape to your design? What if you combined more than one shape or more than one index card? If you add tape and more index cards to your design, you are adding “cost” to your bridge. In real life, the costs for building a certain design and the materials to use for it need to be balanced with the amount of money budgeted for the project
Next time you eat a fruit or vegetable, save the seeds!
- Paper towels or coffee filters
- Plastic zip bag
- Plate or dish
Pre-sprouting your seeds before you plant them outside is a great way to give them the best chance at growing.
- Line the bag with damp paper towels or coffee filters – just a layer or two is enough. The paper towels just needs to be damp not soaking wet.
- Sprinkle seeds on the paper towel.
- Close the bag to create a “greenhouse” effect and keep the paper towels moist.
- Check the seeds daily. If the paper towels start to dry out, mist it with water.
As soon as you notice a root growing out of a seed, it will need to be planted. Be careful not to damage the root. Larger seeds can be picked up with your fingers but you may need to use something to pick up smaller seeds – a wooden coffee stirrer or popsicle stick works well for this.
Plant the seeds in soil. To plant the seeds lay the seed on soil and cover with seed starting mix. The seeds need to be planted twice as deep as the seed is big. Most of the time the seeds will do better if planted into containers with seed starting mix to grow into seedlings. However, larger seeds such as beans, peas, or squash can be planted directly into the garden if weather permits.
Grow and enjoy!
The YMCA provided a Family Membership for my family in exchange for this post. All opinions are my own and photos are courtesy of YMCA DC and DepositPhotos.