Recipe for a STEAM Lab: friction with sleds!

Although I live and work in California’s Bay Area, where we only have three seasons (Rainy Season, Fire Season, and Everything Else Season), I love snow and winter, and I always feel a pull to incorporate some seasonal programming into the calendar at the library. However, I’m a big believer in No Religious Programming (yes, Santa is part of a religious holiday), which means that a lot of the winter STEAM projects you see on Pinterest are a no-go for my library (we aren’t building sleighs for Santa, making reindeer habitats, or anything else that invokes Christmas specifically).

Move to California, they said. It’ll be fun, they said. I would trade Fire Season for Snow Season in a heartbeat, I tell you!

A lot of other winter STEM program ideas I found involved using food as a craft or building material (like sugar cube igloos, or sugar-plum and toothpick geometry). After doing some reading about how using food in play can be insensitive to food-insecure families (check out this Tinker Lab article to read more about both sides of the discussion) I decided to stop using food as a supply in our STEAM Lab programs.

Which left me with a conundrum. What kind of project could we do for STEAM Lab that related to winter, allowed for hands-on, process-based experimentation, but didn’t rely on either food or religious traditions?

Enter: Sleds!

I had no volunteers this particular day, so I didn’t have time to take pictures. Please enjoy these other winter photographs instead.

The Challenge

Can you build a sled out of our recycled materials that lets a passenger (in this case, metal bolts) slide quickly down the hill but without falling out? What about a sled that slides slowly?

The Materials

Add a bunch of cut-up egg cartons and you’re ready to go!
  • a miniature hill (in this case, a long piece of cardboard, wrapped in a white trash bag to make it slick and vaguely snow-like, and taped at an angle to create a ramp that went from the side of a bookcase to the floor)
  • passengers (we used metal bolts, but you could also use plastic toys, action figures, pennies, or anything else with a little weight to it, ideally with enough pieces for each child to have their own to experiment with)
  • egg cartons, cut into twos and/or fours (these were our sled bases)
  • a variety of crafting materials that will produce different amounts of friction on your hill. We used: printer paper, construction paper, felt, aluminum foil, plastic wrap, coffee filters, and tissue paper, because these are all part of our standard building options we keep on the STEAM Lab cart, but you could use any supplies you have on hand.
  • other STEAM Lab staples: glue, tape, string, scissors, twist ties, markers, ribbon, paper clips, and anything else that kids might find interesting to build with (I think I threw in plastic easter eggs, water bottle caps, craft sticks, and any other little “leftovers” from other projects)

The Questions

I searched for “questions” on Pixabay and I was not disappointed.

For this project, we were experimenting primarily with friction. I introduced the concept of friction to the kids by demonstrating that an egg carton, with a rough and grainy surface, did not slide down the hill very well, because there was too much friction between the sled and the hill. We talked about how real sleds are made out of polished wood, smooth plastic, or have metal runners to help them glide down the hill, because those things create less friction.

While they built and tested their sleds, I asked questions like:

  • Do you think that material you’re using will have create lots of friction, or a little friction?
  • Is your material smooth or rough?
  • I see you have tape on the bottom of your sled. Do you think something sticky like tape will make your sled go fast or slow?

Because I also wanted our builders to also think about the safety of their passengers, we had a lot of conversations about why the bolts were bouncing out of the sleds and crashing on the floor, and how they could be protected (seatbelt safety!).

The results

This is the last time I blog about something I didn’t take pictures for.

Our STEAM Lab crowd can vary – we get anywhere from 50 to 120 patrons at a STEAM Lab program, and the ages can range anywhere from preschool – preteens.

This project was a little too complex for our preschoolers to deeply engage with, but it was just right for our school-age kids, most of who stayed engaged and experimenting for the entire hour. Because it used a grab-bag of materials, it was a great project to accommodate our unpredictable attendance numbers.

I will say, however, that while many of our materials (egg cartons, old paper, etc) came out of the recycling bin or were extra bits leftover from previous projects, it also produced a good amount of waste. Because this project is a process-based one, the sleds our kids made were not beautiful keepsakes that they wanted to put on the mantle. While some kids did take their sleds home, many sleds ended up in the garbage heap, and most of them were so covered in tape and glue that they could not be recycled again.

Does this mean that this was a wasteful use of materials? Honestly, I’m not sure. While it did introduce a concept that’s based in science and engineering, we’re not rigorous science instructors and kids were only lightly brushing on the topic of friction, not getting an in-depth education on it. Our kiddos were definitely having a blast and doing some problem solving, but could that have been accomplished by a project that produced less waste?

These are questions I’m still thinking about. Tell me what you think in the comments!

Was it wasteful? I don’t want to think so, but I can’t fully deny it.

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