Recipe for a STEAM Lab: Parachutes!

That’s one lucky penguin.

My favorite STEAM Labs are one that require only the smallest of set-ups, and almost no instructions. The fewer instructions you have to give, the freer the kids are to experiment and design without the structure of my preconceived ideas of how a project should go or what it should look like. A great example of this was our parachute program last winter.

STEAM concepts at work:

  • aerodynamics
  • incremental design through trial and error
  • addition (when adding up the points they scored on the target, see below)
He added multiple layers for better (or was it?) parachuting.

Supplies:

  1. A variety of materials to make the body of the parachute. We used: coffee filters, different types of paper, squares of felt, aluminum foil, and plastic wrap (essentially everything from our grab bag of a STEAM Lab cart).
  2. Something to weigh down the parachute. In this case, I handed out these very small penguin-shaped erasers to be our parachute passengers, but you could use anything from action figures to bolts or washers.
  3. A variety of building, cutting, and decorating materials. We used: scissors, all the different tape we keep on hand, string, ribbon, yarn, pipe cleaners, twist ties, hole punches, markers, crayons, and glue sticks.
  4. A target. This isn’t required, of course, but I drew a target on a large piece of white paper, with point scores for different areas your parachutes could land. Because our parachute passengers were penguins, I drew my target in the shape of an iceberg, and we were aiming to save the penguins from falling in the water. The point system on the target was a great way to sneak in some math as well!
She’s very pleased with her success and showing off for Mom.

What we did:

First, I asked kids what parachutes were for. I asked them some leading questions to establish why something light and airy (like a coffee filter) might make a better parachute than something thick and heavy (like a brick). We talked about some simple design principles, like how different sizes will fall in different ways, and how some parachutes have slits in them to let some air through. Then I let them loose! All told, the talky bits took less than five minutes.

After that, the kids were free to make as many parachutes as they wanted, out of whatever they wanted, and test them as often as they liked. When they were ready to test, they would come to the target and climb up a step stool and then let their parachute fall. I stood by the target to make sure kids were climbing up and down safely, as well as to cheer them on and ask them questions to try and probe some deeper design thinking.

This kiddo was very into the decorating aspect.

Does this project really teach kids STEAM principals?

STEAM projects have been trendy for awhile in education circles, and they don’t always teach the things they set out to. Does this parachute-building activity really create future air engineers? No, probably not.

But in addition to exposing kids to at least a little STEAM mentality, it also forces them to problem solve, to create, to use their fine motor skills, and to reflect on their last result and consider how to improve. That isn’t the same as teaching them rigorous science, but it does give them an opportunity to practice valuable skills that they wouldn’t be getting at a traditional library storytime, or at home alone watching Youtube.

Verdict:

Attendance: 120 patrons

Ages: Everything from 3-12 years-old, plus associated grown-ups.

This was one where I had to actually kick patrons out when we ran out of time, they were so interested in continuing their experiments! Grown-ups and kids were working side-by-side on this project, which was fantastic because it mean that the big hands stayed off the kids’ designs, but allowed them to discuss their design choices with one another as they went.

In addition, because this project used only the scrap materials we always keep on hand, I didn’t have to dedicate any money specifically to this program, and I won’t have to do any special shopping to repeat it. A win on all fronts!


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