Is your troop stuck in a rut, doing the same activities year after year? How about using pipe foam and duct tape to build a miniature roller coaster (and learning about kinetic energy) or making a catapult out of craft sticks and rubber bands and sending things flying through the air (while secretly measuring velocity and distance)?
In this article Ron Colletti of the Greater St. Louis Council shares the kits he prepares for incorporating Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math in your den and pack Meetings. Your Scouts will have a blast…literally!
What does STEM stand for?
STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. The BSA STEM NOVA program started in 2012 and the focus right now is to reach out to Scouts and provide some materials to them so that they can learn more about science, technology, engineering and math, hopefully to get them excited and hopefully get them to go into careers in that field.
The STEM initiative in the BSA exists primarily because we were contacted by ExxonMobil a number of years ago with a request to help them get youth more interested in science. They were having problems finding qualified candidates to hire in those fields in science and engineering and math, and they came to the BSA and said, “We have such a great program to help develop youth. Can we put something together that would help the youth learn more about STEM, get them excited, and get them going into those careers?”
What’s the difference between science and technology?
A lot of people regard science and technology as being just about the same, but there are some subtle differences. Science is more focused on gaining knowledge, and fundamental theory while technology involves creating products that make our lives better. Technology is using what we’ve learned in the science part and applying that. For instance, there’s a lot of science that’s been done to understand electronics and wireless transmission of data and sound. Cell phones would be the technology that uses that science.
What activities can you plan for the troop for each letter of the STEM acronym?
I’ve actually put some kits together with lesson plans so that I can just go into a troop meeting and have everything I need for one of those activities. I’ll go through just a few examples. For science, activities can involve projectiles in space. Several of those are listed in the Nova guide book that BSA offers. There are also chemistry activities such as experiments with Diet Coke and Mentos. So I’ve got a kit that contains Diet Coke and Mentos and all the Mentos launch tubes and I use it to explain why we get that explosive reaction when you mix those two together. One of the things we try to do is take the Diet Coke and put some outside in the heat and let it warm up. We’ll put some on ice, let it cool down, and then we can measure the temperature and look at how that affects that Diet Coke and Mentos reaction. Everyone likes working with that.
I have kits with baking soda and vinegar so they can look at the amount of baking soda versus how much gas is generated. What we do is put the vinegar in a bottle, baking soda in a balloon and put the balloon on the bottle and flip it over so it generates the CO2 and fills up the balloon.
I’ve also got another kit that has pieces of pipe foam covering and I’ve split those in half so you’ve got a U-shape. You can build marble runs with those using some duct tape and those pieces of foam and some marbles. So Scouts can design their own rollercoaster and they learn about potential energy, kinetic energy and what type of angles you would need to keep the marble or riders on the track.
Technology’s a little bit harder to put together in an activity. It takes a little bit more planning, but there are activities available—most of those around kits that the Scouts can obtain to build, like a working radio or a clock.
The Scouts can learn and explore more about the technology that’s used in making movies, such as Star Wars. Even just a single scene in a movie takes a lot of technology to plan that background and everything you see.
I also have a kit that’s designed around robotics. So I’ve got a Lego robot there and some other information about building model robots and what’s involved, the components of a robot, what you would need to make one mobile and one that fits with the technology theme.
For engineering, those activities involve making things: buildings, bridges, paper airplanes just to name a few. I also have a kit on catapult-building and it basically contains a lot of paint sticks that I’ve gone to our local Home Depot and asked them for. They’ve also donated those boxes of rubber bands. I’ve got pictures of designs of catapults that I’ve pulled off the internet that Scouts can build.
Typically what I like to do though is one of the activities in the Science Nova so there’s a very good description and links for additional information in that guide book. But I ask the Scouts to build a catapult to reach a certain distance, looking for accuracy as well. So they have to build that catapult but then they also have to calibrate it. They have to figure out how to make it not just shoot, but shoot where they want it to go, which is kind of interesting. And I usually don’t show them the pictures of the catapults I’ve pulled off the internet ‘til afterwards because I want them to use their imagination and come up with some unique designs. So that one’s a really cool kit to do.
For math there are activities around the use of numbers and measurements. This could be as simple as measuring physical sizes and the volume of a room to making cyphers and codes, or even more involved in tracking of sports data leading to statistical evaluations. The Nova guide book has lots of examples that use modeling and predictions.
There’s also a bungee jumping modeling activity that I have that fits the math field. It’s actually a Super Nova activity but it goes through basically taking action figures, Barbie dolls, Star Wars figures, and using rubber bands we calibrate how many it takes to have that figure drop off of a platform and how far it will go with a certain number of rubber bands. We measure the distance versus the number of rubber bands. They’ll plot that, and then go outside and I’ll find something like a playground piece of equipment, something that’s 8-10 feet off the ground, maybe a slide and measure that and I’ll tell them, okay, now you’ve measured how many rubber bands and what the distance will be in the classroom using tables. I want you to go and use your data and calculate how many rubber bands it would take to hit 12 feet to give you the maximum excitement without hitting the action figure’s head on the ground. So we go outside and we have a little contest to see who does the best. And it’s kind of an interesting activity because obviously bungee jumping’s not a BSA-approved activity, and the lesson plan actually goes into questions like, ‘why do you think this is not an approved BSA activity’ and ‘have you learned more about the safety and what would be involved, the variability and the bungee cord or rubber bands?’
So, bottom line there’s a lot of fun things to do within STEM and Scouts and one that will definitely help prepare these youths for the future.
How do you put STEM in your troop meetings?
Author: Ron Colletti | BSA volunteer as a member of the Greater St. Louis Area Council since 2006 and has had various adult leadership roles in Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, and in the Order of the Arrow. He is a member of the National BSA STEM Committee and is helping to develop new Boy Scout NOVA awards, and has led many STEM counselors and mentor training sessions. In addition to promoting STEM in Scouting, Ron is also a member of the Science Outreach program at his company and visits classrooms to do chemistry demos with students.