STEM Activities for Second Graders

Looking for STEM activities for second graders may be a daunting task, but you’re in the right place. Second grade is when children learn about forces in nature and reinforce their knowledge of shapes and measurements. When STEM is added into the curriculum, it can make your teaching more powerful. As a librarian given the task of researching STEM and providing the local community with STEM programs, I have spent countless hours researching what STEM is and what activities are the most effective while also being in line with its philosophy. 

STEM education integrates science, technology, engineering, and math in the classroom with projects and activities. I am lucky to have found the books Teaching STEM in the Early Years by Sally Moomaw and Teaching STEM Literacy: a Constructivist Approach for Ages 3 to 8 by Juliana Texley, because of the many great activities included in them. I have had success using the following activities from the books because they are all fun and exciting!

Materials

  • long plastic storage box
  • Board, about 6 inches wide and slightly longer than the storage box
  • containers of pebbles, sand, and water
  • clear plastic containers preferably with lids

Description

For this activity, put a board across the top of the storage box filled with water, and set containers of pebbles, sand, and water inside. Create concoctions by having children mix scoopfuls of the pebbles, sand, and water in clear plastic containers. If you have lids for the containers, children can shake up their geology shakes before placing them on the board; if not, they can stir the mixtures. As children fill the other containers, the blends setting on the board will start to change. The dark brown water begins to turn lighter in color.

Second graders love mixing things, so having extra replacement materials on hand is a good idea. Save some of the mixtures for at least a week. Children will see that the water becomes increasingly clear overnight, and this process goes on for several days. They may also notice a rim of sand between the mixture of sand and pebbles at the bottom of the containers and the water at the top.

During this activity, the contents of used containers can be dumped into the body of the storage box, and the containers can be rinsed at the sink to be ready for the next group. On the next day, pebbles can be sifted from the sand using colanders, a filtering process that is also a great science activity.

STEM Content

  • Science
    • The purpose of this activity is for children to explore the process of sedimentation, which is the tendency for particles to settle out of the fluid where they are suspended. In geology, the formation of sedimentary rocks causes sedimentation. Sediment is picked up by moving water and gets deposited when it reaches a barrier, such as a curve in a river or creek, or a tree that has fallen across the water.
    • In this activity, three materials get sorted by the forces of nature. Because of gravity, the heavier pebbles sink to the bottom of the container, displacing water and some of the sand. Sand is heavier than the water, so it forms a layer on top of the pebbles and fills in the gaps between rocks. This leaves the increasingly clearing water on the top.
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  • Math
    • In this activity, you may want to encourage students to create their own geology shake recipes, such as one scoop of pebbles, two scoops of sand, and three scoops of water. For later comparison, these recipes can be written on note cards and attached to the containers. This variation introduces the math concepts of measuring and quantification while also increasing scientific potential.

STEM Connections

  • Engineering
    • Civil and construction engineering involves the understanding of the process of sedimentation and the properties of various materials. A road or a house built on a base could get easily eroded by water and could lead to serious problems.

What To Say and Ask

  • This geology shake’s color is entirely brown. I am about to flip this sand timer. Let me know when it runs out. That will be in five minutes, and I want to see how this geology shake looks then.
  • Didn’t you put water in first? How did it get to the top?
  • Do you think the water will still end up at the top if we put a lot of pebbles in this container?
  • It’s alright if you want to shake the container again. We will see if the same thing happens again where the pebbles go to the bottom.
  • I see a line forming in between the water and the bottom layer. What do you think is causing that line?

Source​

Moomaw, Sally. Teaching STEM in the Early Years: Activities for Integrating Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Redleaf Press, 2013.

Sinking and Floating Rocks

Materials

  • Samples of mica, sandstone, talc, pumice, and granite (available from geologic supply companies)
  • Container of water
  • Recording sheet, such as the one pictured
  • Balance scale
  •  

Description

A common belief among both adults and children is that rocks cannot float. This center helps children disprove that notion. In the process, they discover some important principles related to buoyancy. This center includes a container of water deep enough to allow the largest rocks in the center to be submerged.

A bath towel spread across the science table can absorb any water that is displaced from the container. As children add small and large specimens of mica, sandstone, talc, pumice, and granite to the water, they will notice that some do not sink. Teachers should encourage children to examine the characteristics of the rocks that float to determine what makes this possible. Recording sheets can be added to the center so that children can preserve and compare the results of their experiments.

STEM Content

  • Science
    • A common misconception and one regularly conveyed to children, is that heavy objects sink and lightweight objects float. Objects float when the weight of the object is less than the weight of the water it displaces. Pumice is not a dense material (remember that it is full of holes), so the weight of the water it displaces is more than the weight of the pumice. For this reason, pumice usually floats. Granite, on the other hand, is dense, so even a small piece quickly sinks. Mica is twice as dense as water, so typically it will not float. However, a very thin sheet may float temporarily due to the surface tension of the water. Also, if the mica sheet is formed into a cup shape, it may float like a boat.
  • Math
    • Mathematics content in this center relates to the relative weights of the rocks when compared to their volume. If two specimens of different rocks are close to the same size (volume), such as a piece of pumice and a piece of granite, then children can compare them on a balance scale. Be aware, though, that young children tend to believe that the side of the scale that goes up is the heaviest. Putting something very lightweight, such as a feather, on one side of the scale may help convince children that the heavier side goes down.

STEM Connections

  • Technology
    • Adding a balance scale to this center enables children to use technology to help increase understanding.

What To Say and Ask

  • What do you think will happen when you put the rocks into the water?
  • Did all of the rocks sink? Which one is floating? Let’s put another piece of pumice into the water and see what it does.
  • Which one of the rocks looks the most like a boat? Do you think its shape helps it float?

Source​

Moomaw, Sally. Teaching STEM in the Early Years: Activities for Integrating Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Redleaf Press, 2013.

Ramp Rollers

Materials

  • small objects that roll (marbles, toy cars, golf balls)
  • L-shaped molding from a hardware store for ramp
  • sticky notes
  • holiday ribbon
  • coins and/or metal nuts
  • tape

Description

The force of gravity is a pull from the earth that can start an object to move. Other forces can stop or slow down an object that is falling. Friction can slow an object down. Surface contacts and air can cause friction, but it is easier for children to observe, measure, and manipulate the friction between sliding surfaces.

Set up a ramp in an open space. L-shaped molding from a hardware store works well for small objects as do toy car set ramps. Prepare the sticky notes which will be used as markers. After rolling each object, have the children measure the distance it goes. Stick the sticky note where it ends and write down the distance. Distance can be measured in any consistent unit (feet, yards, steps).

The next step is to create a graph. Take a roll of holiday ribbon and start at the end of the ramp to each sticky note. Post the ribbons to a hallway or classroom wall to great a bar graph. This starts the transition of young scientists from physical measurements to representational diagrams.

STEM Content

  • Science
    • The main subject in this activity is Physics, specifically aligning with PS2A: Forces and Motion of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS): Pushing or pulling an object can change the speed or direction of its motion and can start or stop it. In other words, forces can start or stop an object or change its direction. Gravity forces the movement of the ball or marble down the ramp. Friction (from the air and surface) opposes gravity and slows the ball or marble down.
  • Engineering
    • Once children understand why objects roll different distances, you can have them do an engineering challenge. Lay out some coins, nuts, and/or washers and have them tape as many as they can to a toy car to see how far they can go without falling over.
  • Math
    • Second graders can reinforce their learning of graphs and subtraction with this activity. If you would like to take it a step further, you can use computer software to turn the bar graph into a pie chart. Children may use subtraction to find the difference between the travel distance of each object.

What To Say and Ask

  • I’m going to release the golf ball from the top of the ramp. How far do you think it will travel compared to the ping pong ball?
  • Why do you think the golf ball traveled further than the ping pong ball?
  • Next, let’s see if we can make the ping pong ball travel further than the marble by using our breath. Can we do the same for other objects?
  • How many coins do you think you can tape to the toy cars to make them travel the furthest without falling over?

Source​

Texley, Juliana, and Ruth M. Ruud. Teaching STEM Literacy: a Constructivist Approach for Ages 3 to 8. Redleaf Press, 2018.

Pulley Blocks

Materials

  • classroom blocks
  • several sizes of pulleys
  • pipe cleaners or velcro strips
  • cord or string that fits the pulleys
  • small baskets or buckets that have a handle

Description

Children encounter pulleys in their daily lives, like when they ride an elevator or escalator, but they usually cannot see the pulleys. So, they don’t know what pulleys are and how they work. In this STEM activity for second graders, pulleys are welcomed into the block area for them to explore as part of their construction activities. Children can attach the pulleys to their block structures by threading long pipe cleaners or self-adhering Velcro strips through the eye of each pulley. Precut lengths of string, or a ball of string that children can cut themselves, can also be threaded through the wheels on the pulleys. Small buckets, baskets, or wooden boxes with handles can be used as accessory materials to attach to the pulleys.

In some cases, children may already have ideas about how to use the pulleys without much help from the teacher. In other cases, the teacher may need to show students how they can create vertical and horizontal pulley systems. A class pulley book in which children comment about their designs can be made by taking digital photographs. This encourages children a vital part of the communication process: to rethink what they created and how it worked.

STEM Content

  • Science
    • The six classical simple machines include a pulley. A pulley consists of a grooved wheel that is free to move around its axle and a cord or rope that is threaded through the groove and connected to the object that one wishes to move. The purpose of a simple pulley is to change the direction of a force applied to an object. In a vertical pulley, when the cord is pulled downward, the object moves upward. In a horizontal pulley, a person pulling the rope toward him/herself can move the object away from himself.
    • The book What Is a Pulley? by Lloyd G. Douglas is written for young children and beginning readers. It includes vivid photographs of pulleys used in real-world contexts, like the ones used in cranes and flagpoles.
  • Math
    • An essential component of geometry is understanding directional terms. The use of directional terms should be an important goal in the conversations that go with this activity because pulleys cause a change in direction. For example, you can talk about the relationship between pulling up to get an object to move down. Important directional terms that should be modeled by teachers include up, down, toward, away from, nearer, farther, left, and right.

STEM Connections

  • Technology and Engineering
    • The pulley is an example of early technology. This activity will help children understand how pulleys work, which will help them later as they explore the use of pulleys in more complex technological innovations. Mechanical and construction engineering both use pulleys. The machines employed in many types of manufacturing use pulleys as well.

What To Say and Ask

  • How does the elevator in your block building work? To make it go up, which way do I have to pull the cord?
  • Let’s see how a pulley works by attaching it to your building. We will put the end of this string through the pulley’s wheel, and the bead will keep it from unthreading. We’ll tie the other end to this bucket. Now, let’s see what happens when you pull down on the bead. 
  • I noticed you connected your buildings using a pulley — what a good idea. Now you can move things between the buildings.

Source

Moomaw, Sally. Teaching STEM in the Early Years: Activities for Integrating Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Redleaf Press, 2013.

Hard and Soft Building Surfaces

Materials

  • classroom blocks
  • fabric, such as linen kitchen towels or bandannas
  • foam crafting material
  • cardboard

Description

A building material’s strength and flexibility affect how it can be used for construction. For this STEM activity for second graders, soft and semirigid materials, such as cardboard, foam crafting material, and fabric, are added to the block area. The introduction of these varied materials into the block area stimulates creativity and allows them to experiment with engineering concepts.

The fabric used in this activity is linen kitchen towels. The relatively small size and light weight of these towels allow children to manipulate them easily. If the towels are used to make tents, children will quickly realize that tents also need a frame. They are also likely to discover some construction problems when the towels are used to make roofs, such as their tendency to sag in the center.

The foam crafting material is an interesting building medium for children. When placed across blocks to make a roof, it has enough rigidity to hold its shape. Curved shapes, such as the dome for a building, can be formed by bending it. The cardboard has more rigidity than the foam. A lean-to can be formed by propping it against a block structure. It’s also sturdy enough to make a flat roof and can be folded to create an angle such as in a gable roof.

STEM Content

  • Science
    • The ability to resist being deformed when force is applied to it is a material’s rigidity or stiffness.
  • Math
    • The rigidity of materials relates to the geometric forms it can take. So, children may notice that they can bend some of the more flexible mediums into other shapes. The foam can be bent into a more circular form, but it needs force opposing it to maintain its shape, such as blocks pressing against its sides. Thin pieces of cardboard can be bent, while thicker pieces have the tendency to crease. The cardboard is better able to keep a creased angled shape than the foam. The fabric can be easily shaped into other forms, but it cannot maintain them without a framework for support.

STEM Connections

  • Engineering
    • In engineering, understanding the rigidity of materials is important. Experiments may help children begin to see this connection. For example, if they want to put a curved roof on a building, they need to use a material that has enough flexibility.

What To Say and Ask

  • Which material can bend? Can you use it to put a curved roof on your building?
  • What can you do to prevent the fabric from sagging in the center?
  • John made a tent by draping the fabric over a tall block. What does he need to do to make the tent longer?
  • Look at this picture. I want to build a gable roof like the one in it. Which materials do you think I should use?

Source​

Moomaw, Sally. Teaching STEM in the Early Years: Activities for Integrating Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Redleaf Press, 2013.

Jason Velarde

Jason Velarde is the guy behind STEMcadia. He has been involved with libraries for over 15 years, starting as a Circulation Desk Clerk, working his way to becoming a Youth Services Librarian. Nearly every evening after work, you’ll find him either reverse engineering (breaking) a gadget or building prototype robots, but when he's not, he's here researching and writing about all things related to STEM on STEMcadia.