Kids’ STEM Labs: Newspaper Geodesic Domes

You never know where an idea for a STEM Lab will come to you. For this project, it was while driving to Grandma’s house over Christmas break. My son needed to create a geometry project that was due the day after break ended. Although my son knew about this project in October, like any teenager, he had procrastinated. So, when my husband realized that our son had not yet begun to work on this project, and it was due in a few days, he went into brainstorming mode. The result? My historian husband began talking about geodesic domes. These domes are made completely out of triangles, yet, they have the strength of rounded arches! They do not require any internal support or walls, in a natural disaster, they are one of the safest structures. Obviously, this means we need to plan a STEM Lab around them!

 The skinny: This was a great budget-friendly STEM project, and unlike many of the Labs that I offer, this project required the group to work together. I tried this project with two classes of 5th graders when they came to the library for an outreach morning.

Cost: FREE. A local print shop donated all the newspapers (they were going to recycle them anyway) and we already had the masking tape.

Supplies Needed: Lots of newspapers, lots of wooden chopsticks, and masking tape.

Resources: Make: Paper Inventions by Kathy Ceceri (Access the instructions here: Geodesic Dome Instructions)

How it went: This project took a long time to complete, so when the 5th graders got settled, we went right to work. I began by showing them the photo from the book of the dome we were about to build. I then showed the kids how to roll the newspaper up in a tight roll, and then I let the kids begin rolling.

In my conversations with teachers over this past year, we talked a lot about how technology is requiring them to change how they teach in the classroom, in ways they did not expect.  Because our kids today are so used to technology giving them an immediate result, my teacher friends have informed me that their students are easily frustrated while working with materials in the real world that do not give them an instant result. Also, because they are using tablets and devices, teachers have commented that their student’s fine motor skills are not developed. This is causing teachers to need to spend a lot of time talking to their students about perseverance, and grit, with their students, even will working on simple tasks.

I found that out while doing this project. Apparently, rolling newspapers was very difficult to about ¾ of the students, and they wanted to give up. It took a lot of encouragement to keep them going. And, we had a lot of newspaper that needed to be rolled up: 65 sheets in all. We kept at this for about 30 minutes before it was done. (By the way, once the newspaper is rolled up like this it is called a strut. )

Once we had the newspapers, we assembled the triangles using masking tape, and then kept on building. I knew how the pieces fit together, so I would have kids begin taping in groups of 2-3. Then, I would find kids who were not working, show them where the next strut needed to be taped…and kept going like this. This way, all the kids stayed engaged, and none of them had to actually know how this was supposed to work.

Both classes were able to get their dome built! The first group had a much more fixed attitude, and it took 90 minutes. The second group had much more of a growth mindset, and it took 45 minutes.

What I would do differently: I have this planned out as a community STEM Lab for later this January so I took the time to just roll up the newspaper by myself. Yes, it is a great fine-motor building activity. And yes, it was a great teaching moment to reinforce the teacher’s message about the necessity of perseverance. But, for our community STEM Labs, I mainly get Kindergarten-3rd graders, and I did not want to take the whole hour rolling up newspaper struts.  And, by rolling them up myself, I was able to get these good and tight, which will make building the dome so much easier for the kids. When we do this, I will similarly give 2-3 kids a roll of masking tape, and just give them instructions. I think it will still take 45 minutes, but at least they will be building the whole time, and that is the part that brings the most satisfaction!

After creating our next dome, I hope to have it out in the children’s library for a few weeks for kids to climb through, and maybe, we have Storytime in there as well!

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