Teaching children the importance of sustainability while they learn the fundamentals about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) is a great way to combine recycling and upcycling with fun interactive lessons. What better way to teach kids important concepts than with STEM projects using recycled materials?
One way to recycle items such as plastic bottles, cardboard tubes, cans, etc. is to use them as materials for kids activities and STEM challenges. STEM projects using recycled materials will help kids (and adults) create sustainable solutions to complex problems in their future careers that could one day save our planet.
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Teachers and parents can equip children receiving a STEM education with the skills needed to develop innovative solutions for fulfilling specific needs. One of the priorities for young people is that these solutions are sustainable and not harmful to the environment. Let’s explore some fun STEM projects using recycled materials.
Easy STEM Projects Using Recycled Materials
STEM education tends to focus on practical application and learning how things work by carrying out tasks in the real world. But if you have future innovators in your classroom or at home, you also want them to use sustainable practices when creating products or solutions requiring STEM-oriented expertise.
So, here are some of our favorite STEM projects that are good for young kids and will teach them to re-use everyday items to create things:
More than one million plastic bottles are sold every minute worldwide, and only a portion of those are recycled. That’s a lot of plastic on its way to dumps and landfills.
One way to recycle plastic bottles is to use them as whenever you need bottles or containers for kids activities and STEM challenges. Plastic bottles can be used for anything from making a tornado in a bottle to building rockets. Empty water bottles are great for making sensory bottles or a DIY Lava Lamp.
We upcycled a plastic bottle to make a self watering planter. I’ve used a small water bottle and some dry rice (beans or corn can work well too) for an impromptu percussion shaker. Our infant son loved it so much it was his favorite go to toy for months.
Plastic bottles are versatile and can be used for a variety of science experiments, activities, crafts, and other fun projects. Read more in our post on STEM Projects with Plastic Bottles.
Straw Tower Challenge
The straw tower challenge is incredibly simple in concept (in theory.) It is more challenging than you’d think in practice.
Try using used straws to construct the tallest structure that you can by sticking them together with glue, tape, or any other adhesive. You’ll learn that a lot of thought needs to be put into maintaining tensile strength and the importance of a solid foundation.
Those who rush their projects will ultimately fail.
With recent bans on plastic drinking straws, these may be harder to source for recycling. You can find plastic straws in bulk online should you need them, or use paper straws.
Toilet paper tubes and paper towel rolls are perfect for STEM challenges and activities.
They’re great for building projects (or just building for creative play. Our kids still enjoy gathering up a bunch and constructing “Tube City” only to knock it down. They rebuild it, and think of another creative way to knock it over.)
Kids love projects that launch items into the air, and with a cardboard tube, rubber band, and plastic spoon, they can make a catapult. (Yes, they used the cardboard catapult to bring down Tube City.)
You can also build bridges, marble runs, and many more crafts and projects. Check out these and other fun projects in our full post on projects with cardboard tubes.
To help understand biology and key concepts like photosynthesis or even organic chemistry, you can create a garden in the classroom or at home that uses recycled materials such as glass jars, plastic water bottles, old Tupperware, toilet paper rolls, and other items for pots.
To make them more porous, mix pebbles or marbles in with your potting soil. Drill or punch holes in the bottom of your containers for proper drainage. You can use the seeds from other fruits or vegetables that they eat at home (bell peppers are the easiest) to grow their own plant and create a recycled garden. Kids can learn responsibility by maintaining and caring for the garden.
Over a period of days and weeks, you can observe and take note of the changes to the plants when variables change, such as temperature or exposure to sunlight. You can learn why plants grow in specific ways, how they react to these changes and how plants stay healthy.
Popsicle sticks are another great material for STEM challenges. Popsicle sticks are easy to source, though you may need to eat a lot of popsicle sticks for large projects. You can cheat a bit and buy them in bulk if you need a bunch or are doing activities for a large group.
You can set all kinds of rules around building bridges and boats (What bridge design can hold the most weight? What boat design can hold the most coins and stay afloat? What’s the tallest tower you can build with a set number of sticks?)
If you like the cardboard tube catapult, you’ll love the popsicle stick catapult. Again, a plastic spoon and a rubber band will be the other recycled components. You can check ours in out catapult activity.
You can make a domino like chain reaction or “bomb” by weaving popsicle sticks together under tension. Its a fun lesson in kinetic energy.
Check out these and more in our full post about popsicle stick activities.
Tin Can Projects
Tin cans can provide the raw materials for a bunch of projects. You can use them to build, make a classic can phone, make musical instruments, make homemade ice cream, and more.
Check our full post on Tin Can STEM Activities and try upcycling some of your cans.
Creating Steam Cars
Using tin cans, rubber bands, metal boxes, candles, and straws, you can construct a micro steam car that uses a small turbine on an axle to move through boiling water and create steam. The build in the video is made completely from discarded materials.
This teaches students about some fundamentals of locomotive engineering and familiarizes them with the naturally occurring phenomenon of evaporation and other fundamentals of physics.
Steam cars have been popular in educational curricula for decades. They are a great way to teach children about one of the most important technological innovations of all time, the steam engine.
This one does need parental supervision. As you’ll see in the video, the “first draft” of the car burst into flames, and the heat source needed to be redesigned. Safety first, folks.
Egg Drop Challenge
Yes, you probably remember the egg drop challenge from your science classes because it is a popular way to teach children the fundamentals of physics. The classic egg drop challenge somehow finds its way onto any STEM challenge round up list.
The goal is to create a container that will stop an egg from breaking when it hits the ground from a high drop. It’s so versatile, in that you can use a variety of materials to cushion your egg as part of the challenge.
The great thing about the egg drop challenge is that it’s not limited to any set list of materials. This means you can change up the challenge to use only recycled materials such as egg cartons, plastic bags, toilet paper rolls, straws, and other normally discarded materials to create a structure that would cushion the eggs landing so that it doesn’t crack upon impact.
Try using any recyclables, or maybe set the parameters of the challenge to a smaller set of materials; for instance only cardboard tubes like toilet paper rolls and paper towel rolls. (You can check out our whole post on activities for kids using toilet paper tubes for more projects.)
Creating Classic Toys
You can create classic toys, such as spinning tops and a paddleball with some everyday recycled items.
You can create a simple spinning top with just a round toothpick and a small cap from a milk carton. You can simply make a hole in the middle of the cap and attach the toothpick to it so that there is roughly half an inch of space between the bottom of the cap and the bottom of the toothpick.
Glue the toothpick to the cap in the desired location and make sure it’s secure. Then you can try giving it a spin. On the first try, your spinning top will not spin because balance is essential, and you will need to adjust the positioning of the cap accordingly or tweak it by using toothpicks of different lengths.
A simple alternative spinning top could use a pencil and a circle cut from cardboard.
There are countless instructional videos online that will instruct you on how to create other, more complex toys from recycled materials.
You’d be amazed at what you can find on the internet, and instructional videos on crafting toys is no exception. You’d be surprised by some of the great toys you can learn how to make through online instructional videos.
To create a paddleball, you need:
- elastic bands
- a bouncy ball
- glue or tape
Start by cutting the cardboard into the shape and size that you’d like the paddle to be. Trace the paddle on another piece of cardboard and cut out a paddle identical to the first. Then, cut the elastic band or another stretchy material to about eight inches long.
Poke a hole in the center of one cardboard paddle, thread the elastic band through it, and tie a knot at the back, so it doesn’t fall out of the front end. Then use glue or tape to stick the other cardboard cutout to the back of the original, covering the string at the back.
Attach the bouncy ball to the string’s free end using different methods such as tying or gluing them together.
Wrap Up – STEM Projects with Recycled and Upcycled Materials
Teaching children about important scientific concepts can be quite dull. The projects that we’ve discussed are genuinely fun, and you can do them at home or in the classroom. You’ll love doing these projects and progressively learning about the theoretical concepts they need to understand through practical application.
And, by upcycling and using recycled materials, these projects will help instill a culture in future innovators that place sustainability at the top of their list of priorities.
Check out more STEM projects you can do at home.