STEAM Up Summer Learning
School’s out for the summer, but that doesn’t mean learning has to end. Summer days are the perfect time to explore STEAM—science, technology, engineering, art, and math—with activities perfect for the weather. So keep your cool, keep it fun, and keep learning.
Editor’s note, 5/26/20: This article has been updated for 2020.
STEAM Projects for Steamy Summer Days
1. Sink, Float, Make a Boat
When it’s hot outside, there’s nothing like water play to stay cool. Fill a kiddie pool—or a large storage tub—with water. Collect a variety of objects that can get wet:
- water bottles (full and empty)
- rubber duck or other small toys
- egg (raw or boiled)
- bar of soap
Have kids predict which items will sink and which will float. Then test each object. Were there any surprises? Encourage kids to speculate why some objects float and some do not.
Then using what they’ve learned about what floats and what doesn’t, have kids make boats from a variety of recycled materials. Then they can test their boats and make adjustments to improve flotation and stability.
Use the boats in races or a boat parade with prizes for the most colorful, uniquely shaped, innovative use of materials or any other criteria you come up with.
Summer Reading Suggestions:
- Things That Float and Things That Don’t by David A. Adler
- Captain Kidd’s Crew Experiments with Sinking and Floating by Mark Weakland
- What Floats in a Moat? by Lynne Berry
2. Wish on a Shooting Star
Summer is a great time for stargazing—and meteor watching. The Perseid meteor showers are the perfect time to do some night sky viewing. In 2020, the best time to view the Perseid meteor showers is late evening to dawn on August 11, 12, and 13.
Watching for meteors takes patience. Even on a peak night, you may not see much. Keep expectations low and enjoy being out at night and observing the night sky. There is plenty to see even if meteors aren’t streaking across the sky.
Meteors are often referred to as shooting stars. Have fun making your own shooting stars and wishing on them with this craft.
- Collect card stock, tissue paper, scissors, glue, and a pen or marker.
- Cut large stars out of card stock.
- Glue narrow tissue paper strips to the bottom of the star. Let it dry.
- Write a wish on each star.
- You can stop here and hang the shooting stars, or you can fold the star in half along the top point. Fold each side back halfway to make the star look something like a paper airplane.
- Take your stars outside and give them a toss. Watch them shoot through the sky.
Summer Reading Suggestions
- Look Up! Henrietta Leavitt, Pioneering Woman Astronomer by Robert Burleigh
- Meteor! by Patricia Polacco
- Wishing on a Star by Fran Lee
3. Boom! Flash! Exploring Summer Storms
Thunderstorms can happen any time of year but are most common during summer months. Whether your kids are frightened or fascinated by thunderstorms, understanding how they work is enlightening.
Thunderstorms form when cold and warm air masses meet. In the clouds, static electricity builds up until it is released as lightning. The sound we hear when that happens is the thunder.
One way to learn about weather is simply to observe. Do take care, though. If you see lightning or hear thunder, take shelter in a fully enclosed building or car with the windows closed.
Try tracking your weather for several days, especially when storms are predicted. Some things to observe:
- Does the temperature change before, during, or after a storm?
- What do the sky and clouds look like?
- Does the wind pick up or does the air get still?
- What kind of precipitation (rain, hail) do you get, if any?
- Which direction does the storm come from?
- How long does it take to get to you? How long does it last?
Use a stopwatch to check the time between seeing lightning and hearing thunder. (Do this from a safe space inside.) For every five seconds, the storm is about a mile away.
Use dark paper and white, yellow, silver, or pale blue paint to create a lightning storm on the page. Lightning can take different shapes. Observe safely from indoors and show what you see in your art. Then try creating a series of drawings or paintings that shows the changes you observed in the sky and clouds before, during, and after the storm.
Summer Reading Suggestions
- Flash, Crash, Rumble, and Roll by Franklyn M. Branley
- Thunder Cake by Patricia Polacco
- Thunderstorm by Arthur Geisert
What the Experts Say About STEAM
Colorado-based astronomer, teacher, author of the award-winning Science Adventures with Max the Dog book series, and creator of the free app Totality by Big Kid Science.
What do the STEM/STEAM subjects teach kids beyond the basics of math, science, technology, and engineering?
The STEM subjects are deeply intertwined with all other subjects. For example, all STEM fields require both verbal and written skills, and you need to understand history in order to understand how we have acquired our current knowledge of science. And, as the “A” in STEAM indicates, the sciences and the arts have always gone together.
Is it important for every child to connect to and develop an interest in STEM/STEAM?
Absolutely! Science, math, and engineering are important for everyone in a modern democracy (not just for those who actually become scientists or engineers), because you can’t possibly understand the many decisions that you’ll need to make unless you have a fairly deep understanding of these subjects…You have to understand math to be able to make a good decision about renting versus buying, or to vote intelligently on issues relating to international trade; you have to understand at least a little about engineering and coding to maintain your home internet connection; and you have to understand basic science to make decisions and vote intelligently on issues of medical care and climate change.
How can parents help inspire their child’s interest in STEM/STEAM?
Always encourage your child’s sense of curiosity and wonder. When your child brings up some STEM topic—say, something about space—help your child think of follow-up questions and help your child research the answers.
Founder and executive director of Girls in STEM Denver
Why is it so vital that we target girls specifically in building an interest in the STEM/STEAM world?
The STEM workforce is comprised of 25 percent women, 80 percent of these women are working in bioscience careers; i.e. healthcare, research, psychology, etc. The remaining 20 percent work in engineering, computer science, and technology related careers. With so few women working in computer science, technology, and engineering fields, there is a large talent pool being underutilized.
Are there certain STEM/STEAM activities or angles that seem to interest girls more?
We have found that girls generally want to engage with STEM in ways that can help their community and help humanity overall, which is why 80 percent of women working in STEM fields are in the biosciences. We work with girls to show them this connection in other careers as well. We need architects and engineers to build schools to teach children, and hospitals to provide care. Computer science and coding help develop software for everyday items we use in our lives.
Is it ever too early to introduce kids to STEM/STEAM concepts?
Never! Parents can provide encouragement and build confidence by challenging their toddlers and young children to find a different approach when [they] get frustrated trying to make a toy work or find an answer to a homework problem: “How can you look at that differently?” “Have you considered x?” “What would happen if you tried x instead?” This helps children realize there are different and creative ways to find a solution to a problem and build confidence over frustration. Problem solving is the basic definition of an engineer.
Founder of MindCraft Makerspace at Stanley Marketplace
What exactly is a “Maker”?
A maker is anyone that has ever had an idea, thought, or vision of something we wanted to—or needed to—create to satisfy a need or solve a problem.
How does the maker fit into the STEM/STEAM world?
STEM/STEAM is much more than a focus on science or math, it is a focus on the future and learning in the 21st century, where the process of learning is equally as important as the content. In order for the next generation to solve complex global issues, they must possess the ability to creatively solve problems, think outside the box, collaborate effectively, and communicate solutions to real issues. To be literate in math and science is very important, but it is equally important to be able to think critically, evaluate information, and apply creative solutions to problems.
How can parents help inspire their child’s interest in STEM/STEAM?
The best and most engaging experiences for children are hands-on and interactive. When children play, they explore and build skills and theories about their world. Parents can foster children’s development of STEAM skills by providing learning opportunities and materials that support exploration and discovery. Kids feel good about themselves when they are making, this is the time they can be the director of their time and energy and CEO of thought. Set them free and allow them to create!
Need a quiet afternoon? Set up the kids with an at-home screening of one of these STEAM-focused films.
- Big Hero 6 (2014) PG
- October Sky (1999) PG
- Apollo 13 (1995) PG
- Hidden Figures (2016) PG
- The Lego Movie (2014) PG
- The Martian (2015) PG-13
- Underwater Dreams (2014) unrated
- Wreck-It Ralph (2012) PG; Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018) PG
- Absent Minded Professor (1961) unrated
- Dream Big: Engineering Our World (2017) all audiences
- Temple Grandin (2010) TV-PG
- Planet Earth (2006) TV-PG
- Winged Migration (2001) G
- The Imitation Game (2014) PG-13
- Science Fair (2018) PG
5 Everyday Activities that Teach Kids STEAM Skills
STEAM activities don’t have to be complex or require special tools. Here are five everyday activities that can turn into a lesson in STEAM.
Make and Blow Bubbles: Take a break from doing dishes to make your own bubble juice, with ½ cup dishwashing liquid, 2 cups warm water, and ¼ cup light corn syrup. Experiment with different bubble wands, making bubbles bigger, smaller, and different shapes.
Read Maps and Instructions: Practice giving each other simple directions to a certain location in the house, or instructions for doing daily tasks: make a game of doing step-by-step instructions to get ready to walk the dog or take a bath or shower.
Build Structures: Young children can build with plastic food storage containers or blocks, graduating to Legos, and Lincoln Logs. Experiment with finding creative building materials as you go through recycling or yard cleanup. Ask things like, “Do you think a cereal box will hold up a pickle jar?” “What if the box was filled with packing peanuts?”
Explore Color: Learn the colors of the spectrum in order ROY G BIV (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet) and the next time there is a rainbow check to see that they show up in order. Hang a prism in a window and paint or color the shapes and colors it throws on the wall.
Manage Money: Depending on the age of your child, start with identifying bills and coins, work up to running a small lemonade stand, counting the money and giving change. Next, work together on a budget.