Teachers’ Pet Projects

Education Science
Teachers’ Pet Projects

We asked teachers to share their favorite classroom & science fair projects.

Daniela Steinsapir, San Francisco, Calif.

» Candy Dispenser

candy dispenser

A 7th grader made this electromechanical sculpture during electronic art class. It’s a candy dispenser made out of cans. You put the candy on top, it goes through a plastic tube, and by pushing a button, it activates the servomotor, dispensing the candy.

» The Future of Mankind — Through a Helmet

time travel helmet

Two 7th graders made this during the space arts class. It’s a time travel helmet, made out of recycling materials and discarded electronics, and has a video screen inside. The viewer is invited to time travel to the past and the future by wearing the helmet. The video that plays narrates the students’ theories about space, technology, and the future.

Vickie Connally, Loving, N.M.

» Reflected Light Energy

light energy

My favorite science project is an analysis of energy generated from reflected light. Students use solar panels and microamp meters to measure moonlight, comparing phases of the moon, cloudy nights, etc. Power is generated! This leads to great discussions about reflected light.

» Recycled Playground Equipment

One year we needed playground equipment at a middle school. The challenge was to build it from recycled materials. We got fantastic benches from old headboards, some cool stuff from large tires, and some neat seating from old tractor seats.

» Cell Model from Trash

Use clear plastic food containers or clear plastic bags for the cell membrane. Then chewed gum or other trashed items are molded to represent all the parts. science-ideas.com/3d-plant-cell-model

Rick Schertle, San Jose, Calif.

» Ice Cream in a Bag

Ice and salt in one zip-lock bag and cream mixture in another bag, mixed by tossing back and forth, is a classic treat for all ages! My colleague took his 8th graders over to the kindergarten class next door and they made the sweet treat together. makezine.com/go/ice_cream

Eric Muhs, Seattle, Wash.

» Pinhole Cameras

Any small box can be made light-tight, and a simple darkroom can be set up in a corner of the basement or a small bathroom. The creative possibilities are endless: long exposures, double exposures, panoramas, curved pictures. makezine.com/go/pinhole

» Mobiles

Using related objects, make a mobile a la Alexander Calder that appears to defy ideas about balance. Mobiles teach about rotation, center of mass, and symmetry, and they connect physics and art. Make a large mobile for a public space — we made one using books for our library. makezine.com/go/mobile

» Crop Circles

In a geometry class, we were tired of step-by-step constructions (draw a ray that connects point A on the circle to point X on the line …). So we started to research and draw original crop circles. Students really liked the “mystery” of crop circles, and enjoyed explaining their processes. We had nice software called The Geometer’s Sketchpad, but it was really just a fancy compass and straightedge.

» Musical Instruments

Students define themselves by the music they like, but not many have any relationship to creating music. Simple instruments are a challenge, and you can add structure to a project to make it a richer experience.

Students can record the sound waves with fairly inexpensive software, learn how to play a song individually and with other instruments, and even compose. makezine.com/go/instrument

» Trebuchets

I’ve been doing this with students for 15 years, and have a lot of ideas about how to get your students to build successful trebuchets. We use simulations, and build our own computer models and scale models before committing to the larger investment of a serious hurler. makezine.com/go/trebuchet

Tom Zimmerman, San Jose, Calif.

» Water Rocket Engine Test

Water rockets use a mixture of air pressure and water for propulsion. For a science fair project, my students attach a rocket to a wheel and measure how long it spins to determine the most powerful mixture of air pressure and water. (They actually used a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen and water, but plain air and water is simpler and safer.)

» Robotic Drawing Machine

Two students wanted to make a robot that draws, but they had no programming experience, so we devised a contraption that used the ancient pantograph with a light sensor, solenoid, and piece of charcoal to make a mechanical image reproduction system. makezine.com/go/robotic_drawing

» Earthquake Simulator

An off-center weight is attached to a drill. The drill is attached to a piece of wood suspended in a box. When the drill turns the off-center weight, the wood platforms shakes, simulating an earthquake.

Here’s a manually controlled Shaker Table: makezine.com/go/earthquake (PDF), and others here: makezine.com/go/shaker_tables.

Steve Davee, Portland, Ore.

» Portable Emergency Shelter

My 5th-grade math students created an inexpensive, portable emergency shelter, using three sheets of 4’×8′ plastic corrugated plastic. They decided to design with preschoolers in mind, so they measured and averaged the volumes of our youngest students.

After initial brainstorming and designs in their Maker’s Notebooks, they made scale models of shelters (and preschoolers) out of paper to test and refine their ideas. Once they agreed on a final design, they constructed a shelter that was a successful blend of efficiency, comfort, portability, and utility.

Jane Gerughty, Pacifica, Calif.

» Plastic Projects

I like to shrink #6 plastic fast-food containers. Students draw something science-related with Sharpies, punch holes for hanging, and then shrink the science art in a toaster oven.

I do a mini unit on the history and use of plastics and environmental concerns. I show them a small plastic preform for a water bottle and a large preform for a larger soda bottle to emphasize change of density and relate it to mass.

» Owl Pellet Dissections

I link this lesson to food chains. I have students identify the bones and re-create skeletons [of the animals the owl ate]. makezine.com/go/owl_pellets (PDF)

» Strawberry DNA

Another favorite is DNA extraction from strawberries. It’s a nice way to see DNA. makezine.com/go/dna

Alicia Hardy, Oakland, Calif.

» Roller Coaster Design Project

Using inexpensive materials, you take foam pipe insulation and cut it in half, making two sets of semicircular tracks. All you need is a marble to begin an exciting challenge.

You can create distance challenges or have students try to get the marble into a cup several meters away. You can even have a “make the biggest loop-de-loop” contest. Students get to express their creativity and explore the physics of energy, all without even knowing it! makezine.com/go/roller_coaster

Richard Delwiche, San Francisco, Calif.

» pH Indicator

Rather than using expensive and toxic solutions, I prefer to have students make their own. The simplest and most widely known is cabbage juice, obtained by either squeezing or boiling.

Another awesome indicator is turmeric. I put powdered turmeric in alcohol, then soak up the yellow solution into coffee filter paper.

After it dries, strips of this paper can be used to indicate the presence of a base. I hold it over the mouth of an ammonia bottle to show that even the vapors turn it to a vivid makezine.com/go/ph (PDF)

» Membrane Aerophones

These are musical instruments that sound a little like oboes. You blow into a straw to pressurize a small chamber made from a film canister covered with a membrane. As air pushes up the membrane it escapes the chamber through a PVC pipe. The tube has finger holes that can be covered like a recorder to play a scale. makezine.com/go/aerophone (PDF)

» Oil Drop Photometer

We have also made simple and elegant “oil drop photometers.” makezine.com/go/photometer

Gever Tulley, Montara, Calif.

» Wind-Up Juice-Bottle Boats

Every kid gets two empty 15-ounce juice bottles, a couple of rubber bands, and some sculpture wire. At first it seems impossible, but then it’s clear that the possibilities are endless. Aero- and hydrodynamics are explored, and friction and tension are diagnosed and managed. makezine.com/go/bottle_boat

» Deconstruct and Reanimate

Obsolete storage devices such as cassette tapes and floppy drives are dismantled and the parts are probed with AA batteries to see what happens.

Electromechanical principles are discovered, and basic concepts of circuits and polarity are explored.

» Potential Energy

A few hex nuts, some string, and a couple of coat hangers are all that’s needed to play with potential energy. Wire sculptures are animated with falling weights and unspooling line. Simple mechanical linkages are invented and refined, and a deeper understanding of gravity may be revealed.

Mike Petrich, San Francisco, Calif.

» Chain Reaction Contraption

One of my favorite projects is to build a collaborative Chain Reaction Contraption, inspired by Rube Goldberg or Heath Robinson (the U.K. version of Goldberg). Pythagoras Switch is another inspiring resource, a Japanese TV show highlighting short chain reactions.

We often impose a theme for the construction; we’ve created chain reaction contraptions based on Einstein, Pi/e (3.14159 and dessert), and Love.

Students encounter high-level design and problem solving. Experiments with completing circuits, potential and kinetic energy, rotational motion, leverage, humor, metaphor, and collaboration are all required to build and contribute to the event.

» Cardboard Automata

Inspired by the clever Cabaret Mechanical Theatre in the U.K., we host an activity that allows teens to construct their own narrative, kinetic machines, utilizing cams, gears, levers, and other simple mechanisms. Unlike other science activities that use art to “decorate” the experiment, this automata activity combines science, art, and storytelling in equal parts. It is challenging, incorporates common materials in unusual ways, and allows for individual expression. makezine.com/go/automata (PDF)

Chris Connors, Duxbury, Mass.

» Mendocino Motors

One project I’ve done is the Mendocino motor. It’s a solar-powered, magnetically levitating motor. Here’s a document that lays out a lot of the process: makezine.com/go/mendomotor

» Vibrobot Variations

I also like variations on vibrobots (as seen in MAKE, Volume 10). A fun project we have done is to disassemble CD players, make battery holders, and then turn them into vibrobots.

With a limited set of tools, a couple of discarded drives, and a few hours’ time, this project introduces students to variations of manufacturing design, sourcing supplies for future projects, and the joy of discovery inside previously mysterious devices. makezine.com/go/vibrobot

Additional resources:

Museum of Science and Industry activities: msichicago.org/online-science/activities

Exploratorium Science Snacks: exploratorium.edu/snacks

List of organizations that promote hands-on learning: makezine.com/20/teachers

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