Fragile test tubes, expensive software, sleek kits—fantastic tools for STEM and STEAM learning. But for versatility and accessibility, particularly at a time when 94 percent of public schoolteachers are pouring their own funds into classrooms, cardboard and paper can’t be beat.
Interactive, hands-on, low-cost and requiring minimal preparation, STEM problem-solving activities that rely on paper and paper-based packaging can help students supercharge their brains, introducing them to concepts related to gravity, strength-to-weight ratios, volume, geometry and spatial dimensions.
“Teachers everywhere are seeing the benefits of using cardboard in their classrooms, and as schools add ‘makerspaces’ to libraries and classrooms, cardboard is becoming an important part of education,” says Chris Woods, a high school math teacher, education presenter and founder of the dailySTEM website, where he shares videos and blog posts for teachers and students looking for fresh ways to learn about science, technology, engineering and math.
“In my classroom, cardboard boxes—and different types of paper—form the basis of turning abstract math concepts into tangible, hands-on learning,” says Woods, who has been teaching for 20 years in Michigan. Woods uses paper materials to craft experiments with students, and he also encourages them to use paper in more conventional ways. For example, when covering space and astronomy with students, he proposes that teachers keep a “space journal” and have students create their own space tourism posters like those designed by NASA to encourage curiosity about outer space.
Below are three example exercises for high school, middle school and elementary school students that Woods both endorses and uses. Because some of these exercises can be group-based, pupils will also learn how to communicate their own comprehension and help each other improve their understanding of the science on the fly.
“From shipping boxes to cereal boxes, cardboard is a free, adaptable and versatile building material for kids to bring ideas and inventions to life,” Woods explains. “Many teachers ask local businesses or their school cafeteria for boxes, cut them into manageable-size pieces and make them available whenever kids feel the creativity flowing.”
Unfold the Surface Area
This project is ideal for middle and high school students.
“This is geared more to complex formulas in geometry and algebra,” Woods says. Use it to teach real-world math with a tangible object: an everyday box. For a demonstration, watch Woods’ video here.
● Small packaging box (such as a smartphone or electronics box)
- Have students unfold the box while explaining the differences between volume and surface area.
- Pack as many blocks as will fit inside the box to fill its volume.
- Measure each side of the box to figure out the surface area. (To determine the box’s surface area, first calculate the area of each face of the box. Then, add the areas of all six box faces.)
- Cut off any flaps that don’t make up the essential parts of the box. Then, cut off the remaining six sections and tape them back together to make up the box.
Build the Strongest Columns
This activity makes for ideal group work for elementary and middle school students.
● Copy paper
● 10 to 12 books
- Make a column using the full length of the paper by folding and taping the ends together.
- Build a few more columns, using round, triangular and rectangular shapes (and any others you see fit).
- Pile books on top of each column type until the paper cannot support any more.
Step Through an Index Card
This project is ideal for elementary students to do on their own.
“This one is a classic, quick icebreaker for a STEM day, and most kids have seen this example in elementary schools,” Woods says.
● Index card or paper cut into the size of an index card
- Fold the index card in half lengthwise.
- About ¼ inch from the top, make a cut from the crease about three-quarters of the way to the card’s open edge. Do not cut all the way through.
- Repeat about ¼ inch from the bottom of the card.
- Unfold the card and cut along the crease between the existing cuts. Then refold the card.
- Make another cut about ¼ inch from the top cut, but this time start from the open edge and cut about three-quarters of the way to the crease.
- Continue making these cuts every ¼ inch, alternating which side you start each cut, until you reach the end.
- Open up the ring-shaped paper—and step through!
*Adult supervision required for all activities involving scissors.