Kick off the new school year with one of these STEM activities! Easy to plan, low-cost, and accessible to all grade levels, these icebreakers set the stage for a great school year. Students will get to know one another, maybe remember your name, and leave class thinking it was a lot of fun!
It’s back-to-school time! This means a brand new year, maybe a brand new group of students, or even a new grade level. The first few days are often spent settling in, learning student names, and explaining classroom rules, policies, and objectives. You probably also do various icebreaker activities to help students feel comfortable in the classroom and with their peers and to make everyone excited about the year to come.
Back-to-school icebreakers often take the form of games and arts and crafts activities to help fill the bulletin board or start covering the walls for a family back-to-school night. If your routine icebreakers don’t include science and engineering, you and your students are missing out!
We’ve got suggestions for 7 fantastic icebreakers that are rooted in science. These work well for grade-level classrooms as well as for science subject classes in upper grades. Remember, icebreakers are supposed to be engaging! Icebreakers for older students are often based on “simple” science activities that are fun, a refresher, or just thematically on point, so don’t be afraid to choose something that seems easy to help ease everyone into your cool classroom!
With these ideas, you’ll be jumping into teaching science right from the start with activities your students will also think are lots of fun!
Seven Fun STEM Icebreakers for Science Class
What colors might you find lurking inside a black marker? What colors are in a red marker? How does the formula for an ink color differ from different companies? Are all black markers the same? With a simple paper chromatography activity, students can take a peek inside to reveal the different color components that make up marker inks.
You can use coffee filters for this activity, but for a simple icebreaker, you can use paper towels. Fold a square paper towel in half and then in half again. Open it up and use a water-based to draw a thick circle around the center point (about an inch away from the center). Fold the paper towel back up. So that these end up circular, use scissors to trim the upper part of the folded paper towel in a semicircle. Put the folded paper towel, point-side down, into a jar of water so that just the bottom of the paper towel is in the water. Thanks to capillary action, the water will begin climbing up the paper towel. As it passes through the ink, the color molecules in the ink formula will begin to separate. As the water continues to climb, you may see different colors appear that are all part of the ink formula for the marker. Once the water reaches the edge of the paper towel (or stops carrying color), carefully remove the paper towel from the water and lay it out to dry.
Depending on the markers used, this paper chromatography activity can make some interesting patterns! Students can compare different markers of the same color or experiment with multiple colors of markers, rings of color, stripes of color, or other explorations! (Note: The finished filter art can be used to make other things, including flowers and butterflies, but we think the colorful filter art is cool on its own, too! Punch a hole in them and hang them up. They will fade over time.)
Spark a bit of friendly competition with this paper-based STEM bridge-building activity. How much weight can a bridge made from a single sheet of paper hold? Challenge students to design their bridges and test them using pennies as weights. This challenge works well with younger students but it is also a great exercise in engineering design and physics for older students. You can change up the challenge a bit by allowing more materials or making different requirements for the bridge construction or testing.
The science: Changing the shape of the bridge and giving it vertical sides or walls can make the paper bridge significantly stronger without changing the quantity of materials.
No teacher wants to encourage paper wads, but cotton balls might be all right for some unbridled icebreaker fun! With cardboard tubes, rubber bands, and pencils (broken and short ones work well), students can make simple cotton ball launchers and then experiment to see if they can master their launch skills.
The science: This simple engineering project creates a launch device that stores elastic potential energy (when the rubber band is stretched) to propel the cotton ball (when the rubber band is released).
Decorating a paper cutout of a shirt (or a person) is a great way for kids to express their personality and help you and their classmates get to know them. You can find a range of these “About Me” or self-portrait pieces lining classrooms at all grade levels. With a bit of chemistry, you can turn this into a special and colorful icebreaker STEAM activity.
The premise is simple: if you draw on fabric with permanent markers and then drop on some isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol, the colors will spread and blend, resulting in something that looks a bit like tie-dye. This marker tie-dye technique can be used for full-size t-shirts, but it offers an easy and unexpected way to decorate mini t-shirts for an “About Me” project or self-portrait. To make mini t-shirts, you’ll need to cut small t-shirt-shaped pieces from a white or light-colored cotton t-shirt. (Recycled shirts work well. You can cut a number of mini t-shirts from a single shirt!) Ideally, fabric for this activity is stretched (over the opening of a mason jar, for example), but taping the fabric to a piece of cardboard is an easy alternative. (We recommend putting down newsprint, butcher paper, or other covering to protect surfaces against the permanent markers and alcohol.)
Have students draw in the center of their mini t-shirt with permanent markers (like Sharpies). Have them focus just on adding color, like swirly patterns or stripes, not realistic drawings. After the drawings are in place, alcohol needs to be dripped onto the colored portion. The marker ink will break down and begin to spread and blend. Small pipettes or plastic medicine droppers can be used to add the alcohol. Students can do this individually, or an adult or teacher can go around the room and drop the alcohol onto each student’s tie-dyed mini t-shirt. Enjoy the oohs and ahhs as the colors begin to spread. Leave the fabric pieces to dry. Once they are dry, kids can glue their mini t- shirts to a piece of cardstock that has a head and neck drawn on it. Students can fill in their face and hair features before or after the shirt is added. In the end, your students will have created a custom set of About Me art you can hang up in the room or on the bulletin board!
The science: If you try this with water, you will find that the colors don’t spread. But permanent marker ink is soluble in isopropyl alcohol. The ink won’t dissolve with water, but it will dissolve in alcohol.
This classic craft activity has windy science built in! Let students decorate the papers they will use to make their pinwheels, and then use the directions in the Find the Best Pinwheel Design activity to assemble their pinwheels. Three designs to test are provided, and one will work better than the others. For an icebreaker, you could present all three options and have students choose which one they will each try and then compare. Or you could have all students make the first design. If you have windy weather, these may spin while outdoors, or kids can try them in front of a fan in the classroom. Even if spinning them isn’t possible, these at least will make for a great class photo with kids each holding their colorful pinwheels! Once finished, pinwheels can then be sent home for testing or placed in a recycled container in the classroom as decoration.
The science: Wind turbines operate on the same principles students can observe in a pinwheel. In the activity, students are presented with different designs for the rotor blades (the arms of the pinwheel). One of these designs will spin better than the others.
No matter how you use it, invisible ink is generally a classroom crowd pleaser. Being able to write and reveal secret messages is pretty cool, and science holds the key to making this something kids can easily explore in the classroom. For younger students, educators might prepare secret messages in advance, writing an affirmation or positive word on sheets to be handed out to students. They can then reveal them by painting on a special turmeric and alcohol solution. (Note: Use Method 2 in the activity directions.) Older students might write their own messages with the baking soda mixture and then have to sort out how to reveal them from available materials. Or you might provide several “recipe” cards for formulas they can try, with only one of them being the correct formula.
The science: There are several methods that can be used to create and reveal invisible ink. The turmeric method in the activity is one that makes the invisible message (written with a baking soda and water mixture) change color because turmeric changes color in response to an acidic or alkaline environment.
7. Marble Run
This activity can work at any time of the year and can be excellent for a STEM station in a room where there is a dedicated wall space, but making a community wall marble run is perfect for an icebreaker classroom activity. You’ll need an assortment of cardboard tubes and other lightweight recycled materials and containers, tape, and a few marbles for this activity. And, of course, you’ll need a wall! Depending on your school, a hallway wall might work, but any wall space in the classroom can be used. Break students into groups, and have them work together to create a marble run. They’ll need to test and make changes along the way to get the marble to successfully make it from start to finish, but they’ll have fun engineering their marble run.
The science: To design a successful marble run, students will use potential and kinetic energy as they create a run that moves from top to bottom.
Other Fun STEM and STEAM Activities for the Classroom
For other great ideas to use with students when having fun is part of the recipe for success, see these collections:
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