“Who have guessed that a box of straws could be so entertaining?” one of my parents at our Kids’ STEM Workshop: Straw Towers remarked to me after watching her children totally engrossed for 45 minutes with their creations. And, what a great way to get kids to use their fine motor skills working with materials that are not usually used together! The challenge: build the largest tower you can with straws and paper clips. Or, build another structure and go for the most creative, or, the most similar to a famous tower or building. Go!
The skinny: The night when we offered this program it was incredibly cold, rainy, and otherwise not “go out to the library” weather. I honesty thought we would have no one come, but a nice crowd showed up despite the conditions, and our Children’s library was alive!
Costs: Plan on this program costing about $.30 per child with the costs divided between plastic straws
and paper clips. I went to Walmart to buy the straws, which I think were about $1 a box. Plan for a box to serve about 3 children. You also need small paper clips (#1 paper clips). Plan on one box serving two or three children. We went through way more paper clips than I expected, but they also are super inexpensive. Only two materials needed for this STEM workshop!
How it went: Because of the awful weather I was really expecting no one to come. I did not set up the programming room as usual, and instead just set out some supplies in the children’s library. I had my trusty librarian friend, Karen, with me, and an area science teacher. I showed them the supplies and how to bend the paper clip to act as the binder to attach two straws together. We began playing, and soon a family came in and joined us. And then another. And another. I kept bringing in tables, and I turned on soft instrumental music. The weather outside was awful, but the children’s room became a cozy place to work together as families kept coming in and joining us.
I made an awful mistake, though, and bought paper clips that were perforated. This meant that when we bent the paper clip to attach it to a straw it broke! I had no other paper clips, so it really was an 11th hour situation with families arriving and the supplies I had bought breaking in my hands. With none of the paper clips working, I did let the kids use little pieces of masking tape to tape their straws together. This worked well, and it may have been easier for our younger patrons (kindergartners) who joined us. Just make sure that when you buy paper clips they are not perforated, and are the smooth paper clips that we know and have used a million times before but never thought about!
I did this program earlier in the week for two 5th grade classes, and I did have paper clips for them that did not break. The students divided up into groups of two to build. They struggled a lot to bend the paper clips and attach to the straws, and I went around the room helping groups as needed. They did get the hang of it, though, as they kept working. It was a good opportunity for them to realize that real engineers have to work with materials that can be difficult. This group asked for tape, but I did not let them use it, because I knew they could figure it out, and they did!
To get the paper clips to “grip” the straws, you need to bend the ends out a little bit. Slip one end of the straw opening over the bent paper clip, and it will “hold”. You can also bend the paper clip at a 90 degree angle to make a corner. Here is a photo.
With the 5th graders, we tried balancing a few pieces of paper on the towers to see which one would support the most weight, but none of them could balance much more than one piece of paper. So, we changed and just went to three categories: tallest, most creative, and most reflective of a famous tower or building.
At the end of the family workshop program I went around to all the kids in the room and had them tell me about their tower. I then borrowed a question I had been asked every year at the county fair when I brought my 4-H projects in to be judged: I asked them what they could do differently next time. Being able to articulate if they were happy with the structure they built, and if not, how they would problem solve, is an important cognitive skill. It also affirms the work they did, and lets them know that it is okay not to have it the way they envisioned, if they have a plan to keep working on it (and not giving up). After about an hour of building and asking every child about what they had made, I thought that families would be ready to head home. Nope, they kept right on building until we were closing down the library!