A Complete Guide to STEAM Supplies for Parents and Teachers: Tools to Use to Help Learners Become Innovators

Chris Lazartic

 

As the holidays approach, we may consider purchasing toys, technology, kits or other fun gadgets for the children in our life. As teachers, we may look to spice up our learning environment after the first three months of school. Some of these items may facilitate learning on a higher level, while others may serve more entertainment purposes. I’d like to think about each of these items existing on an “Innovation Scale”, with those that offer learners the experience to create and learn existing on one end of the spectrum, and those that provide a more passive, consumptive experience on the other. Below, I have written about my experiences with some of these technologies, kits, software, and what outcomes they may provide for children of different ages. The reviews begin with the more “un-plugged” materials that do not involve as much modern technology, and then progress to more technologically-advanced tools. Keep in mind, my grade level recommendations are general estimations; each child is unique and may be ready for different learning tools at different times.

This comprehensive guide includes recommendations for the following categories (click to skip to a section):

Maker Space Materials | Engineering Kits | Hardware | Software

Maker Space Materials
A “maker space” is defined as a gathering space where people can come together to work on projects while sharing ideas, equipment, and knowledge. You can create one of these in your home or classroom by simply buying and organizing common materials in a safe place. Your maker space could be as elaborate as a shed or garage, or as simple as a bin of materials that lives in a closet. Depending on the tools being used and the age of your learners be sure to provide proper supervision.

Item: Cardboard
Cost: $
Grade Level: ANY
Innovation Score: 5/5
Cardboard is a wonderful tool to use to inspire your learner to be creative. People of all ages can use cardboard for engineering and artistic explorations. For older elementary and middle school learners, show them this classic video to inspire creativity: Caine’s Arcade. Possible projects include rockets, rovers, planes, arcade games, cars, board games, dioramas, buildings, bridges, rollercoasters, and much more. Also, you can often get cardboard for free and places like Costco, hardware stores and other stores.

Item: Tape
Cost: $
Grade Level: ANY
Innovation Score: 4/5
Tape comes in a wide variety of types and performance. Some tape such as Scotch (clear) and masking tape are relatively inexpensive, while other tape like duct or blue painter’s tape can be pricier. That being said, every maker space should have a variety of tape available for its engineers. Keep in mind, tapes like duct tape will vary widely in performance. I have found the more expensive, industrial duct tapes to hold for longer. Be aware of this if you have children that want to complete more long-term projects. I am currently using some inexpensive duct tape with my 6th grade students, and it falls off the cardboard after sitting for several days.

Item: Glue/Adhesives
Cost: $
Grade Level: Varies, see below
Innovation Score: 4/5
A variety of adhesives is another staple of any effective maker space. Children in early elementary school should rely on the use of non-toxic, non-permanent glue (such as Elmer’s), while learners in middle school can begin to experiment with hot and super glue. Glue guns are a great tool for students in grades five and above to use (strong hold on most materials with a very quick cure time), but they can easily create significant burns. Use hot glue guns only with careful supervision and proper training. I use super glue with students only as a last resort, and when I do, I do so with proper ventilation and gloves.

Item: Cutting Instruments (Scissors, utility knives, hacksaws)
Cost: $/$$
Grade Level: Varies, see below
Innovation Score: 4/5
Similar to the adhesives, there are different cutting instruments for students in different grade levels. Learners should begin their cutting practice with safety scissors, then progress to larger scissors, and then to utility blades and saws in grades six and above. I believe that jobs should be completed with the least dangerous tool possible. Scissors and ceramic blades are great for paper and string, utility blades for thicker cardboard, and saws for PVC and wood. Before using any utility blade, learners should learn proper techniques. These include, but are not limited to: (1) Always cut on top of a surface that can also be cut (cutting board/mat) (2) Always cut away from your and others’ bodies (3) When the blade is not being used to cut, it should be closed (4) Never engage in horseplay when blades are out (5) Report and accidents to a teacher or adult immediately.  

Item: Colors (Markers, crayons, pencils, paints)
Cost: $$
Grade Level: Varies
Innovation Score: 5/5
Aesthetics are a key ingredient to things created in a maker space. Washable markers, crayons, and paint are great tools for learners in grades PK-4. As students get older, they may want to use Sharpies and permanent paint. Be sure to use permanent coloring devices in a well-ventilated room. Although spray paint can be a very convenient form of art, I try to avoid its use in the school setting. Ventilation is a difficult issue with spray paint, and students typically get it on their bodies and the ground, even when precautions are taken.

Item: Other building materials (popsicle sticks, tooth picks, chenille sticks, various paper supplies, paper cups, rubber bands, 2 liter bottles/caps, ping-pong balls, marbles, PVC piping and connectors, cotton balls, paper towel rolls, paint stirrers, etc.)
Cost: $$
Grade Level: Varies
Innovation Score: 5/5
In addition to the materials discussed above, you should also stock your maker space with other building supplies. Learners can use the materials mentioned in the “item” section above to build cars, catapults, gliders, board games, models, marble runs, towers, bridges, and much more.

Item: Old electronics and toys (VCRs, clocks, computers, speakers, RC cars, etc)
Cost: $
Grade Level: Varies
Innovation Score: 5/5
This category gets one $ because you can typically find these items for low costs at second hand stores, or you may just have some lying around the house. Armed with only a Philip’s head screwdriver, many of the items mentioned can be taken apart and investigated by learners of all ages. Keep in mind, that some electronics and machines can be hazardous (sharp edges, chemicals, batteries, magnets), so take precaution when disassembling. Kids may have fun “hacking” and repurposing parts they find in old devices. Think about making a racecar powered by the motor from an old tape deck, or magnetic experiments with a strong magnet found in an old speaker. Young children may just tinker with parts, while older learners may fix, repurpose and re-assemble.

Engineering Kits
There are many commercially available STEM/STEAM kits available in stores and online. Educational companies like Pitsco and Carolina Biologic (not just Biology) are great resources, but come at a higher cost. If you are willing to put in a little extra time, you can often construct kits on your own for a much lower cost. There are many engineering kits I have constructed on my own, such as spaghetti bridges, marshmallow towers, mouse-trap powered cars, balloon-powered cars, water powered rockets, catapults, and much more. Below are commercially available kits I have experimented with in the STEAM Lab and summer camps.

 

Item: K’NEX
Cost: $$/$$$
Grade Level: Kid K’NEX: PK-1 / K’NEX:2– 8
Innovation Score: 5/5
K’NEX offers a wide variety of kits, ranging from toys for three year olds to challenging activities for teenagers. The standard K’NEX kits require snapping of pieces, which I have found can even be challenging for students in grades five and six. I have had the most success with the “Forces, Energy and Motion” kit. Learners can build cars with working motors, collect data, and run them up slopes or through obstacle courses. Young engineers can freely create with KNEX, or follow instructions. The “Big Ball Factory”, which I also built when I was a child, is the ultimate KNEX challenge for learners in grades 6 and above.

 

Item: Little Bits Coding Kit
Cost: $$$
Grade Level: 3+
Innovation Score: 4/5
Little Bits are described as “electronic building blocks for the 21st century.” They offer several types of kits, with most involving simple to use electronic parts that easily fit together using magnets. We have experimented with their Coding Kit, which provides electronic parts and coding software to leaners to explore. The kit comes with four projects, which are very easy to follow with the included video tutorials. However, inspire your learners to go beyond these projects once they are completed. For example, some of my students built working flippers for their cardboard pinball machine using the servo motors provided in this kit.

Item: Zometool
Cost: $$$
Grade Level: 2+
Innovation Score: 3/5
Zometool allows students to construct different geometric shapes using “sticks” and spherical “connectors”. My students have enjoyed using Zometool to build tall buildings, bridges, or geometric designs. However, the pieces can easily break when removing them from the connectors. Zometool also offers software to help build designs. Overall, these are fun, innovative building materials, but a little limited, brittle, and pricey.

Item: Snap Circuits
Cost: $$
Grade Level: 3+
Innovation Score: 3/5
Snap Circuits have been around for a while, since 1972 to be exact. Snap Circuits allow learners to “snap” electrical circuits together using buttons similar to those used in clothing. The instruction manuals include many projects for children to complete, or they can explore on their own. Recently, Snap Circuits have offered more products, such as Snap Circuits Jr. and kits that connect to computers. These kits are definitely worth a try for your young electrical engineer.

Item: IQ Key
Cost: $$
Grade Level: 3+
Innovation Score: 4/5
Similar to Snap Circuits, I can also remember playing with IQ Key when I was a child. IQ Key is a system of modular pieces, each fitting together to make machines, such as cars, windmills, gondolas, and more. Each piece has a clear covering, so learners can see the gears or motors that reside inside. My students, especially those in grades 5 and 6, really enjoy building with these. Recently, IQ Key has made remote control robots available, which are even more fun. I highly recommend this product for students in grades 4-6.

Item: DIY Drone Kit
Cost: $$
Grade Level: 5+
Innovation Score: 2/5
There are several avenues to take when building your own drone: simple projects to put together, or elaborate plans to follow (3D printing parts, soldering wires, etc). The kit I tried with my seventh grade students was one of the simple variety. This kit was a “GILOBABY STEM RC Toys Kit” I found on Amazon. Students basically followed directions to snap pieces together, and the drone was assembled in about an hour or less. A few of the drones did not work properly, but most students were eventually able to get their drones flying. This kit is a nice place to start for learners in early middle school, but would not be much of a challenge for engineers that have more experience with drones and other electronics.

Item: DIY Propeller Car
Cost: $
Grade Level: 5+
Innovation Score: 3/5
This is another basic kit I found on Amazon. The kit is very cheap, but so are the components that you get for the low price. No soldering is needed, which is nice, but the screws and screwdriver are very small and hard to work with. We used this kit this year in our STEAM Olympics. Students were to follow directions to build the car, and then they could “hack” the design to try to make it move faster. The car took students about 45 minutes to assemble, then another 45 to test and hack. This is a fun and inexpensive for your learner to venture into the world of electronics and small motors.

Item: Fischertechnick
Cost: $$$
Grade Level: 5+
Innovation Score: 5/5
I would describe Fischertechnik as a modern day Erector set (which also still exist by the way). Fischertechnik are hard plastic pieces that snap or slide together; very few tools are needed. They are more complex than Legos or KNEX, and can be more of a challenge for engineers as they advance in middle school. These projects take a little more time to complete, but learners are very proud of projects they complete with these kits.

Item: Solar Oven
Cost: $/$$
Grade Level: Varies with product
Innovation Score: 4/5
There are many projects you can do with solar ovens. The set-up I linked to above is a more serious oven that can be used immediately. It gets very hot (300+ degrees) and can be used to bake all types of food. However, there are many other, less expensive kits that you can try. You can even construct simple solar ovens using just aluminum foil, duct tape, and cardboard. For these simpler DIY ovens, be sure to cook low-temperature items, such as s’mores. Solar ovens are a great way to teach children about renewable energy and food science. However, you need a nice, sunny day and a lot of time outside to be successful.

Item: Solar Car
Cost: $
Grade Level: 3+
Innovation Score: 4/5
Similar to the drone and solar oven projects, there are many ways to go about building a solar car. The only experience I have is with the Junior Solar Sprint kits that can be purchased using the link above. Junior Solar Sprint is a national competition that challenges learners with various races and other engineering opportunities. The solar kit can be constructed with the addition of cardboard or corrugated plastic (recommended) to use as the car’s body. However, the gears may be hard to change for learners in grades five and below. Once learners use the solar panel to power a basic car, they can explore deeper and try other designs!

Technology – Hardware
This section contains more electronic hardware, such as robotics and computers. A lot of these items come with a higher price tag because of the new technology that is most likely being used. Before making a significant investment in any technology hardware, I recommend doing some research of your own. Use the internet to discover other parents’ and teachers’ experiences with the devices. Are they age appropriate? Will they break? How is the battery life? Will my child get bored of this in one day or one year? How creative can my learners be with this device?

Item: Sphero
Cost: $$/$$$
Grade Level: 3+
Innovation Score: 4/5
The Sphero company started in Boulder in 2010, and pioneered a basic robotic toy “ball” that could be programmed and controlled. Since then, the company has grown and developed new, innovative products. Our STEAM lab has invested in two of their products: Sphero SPRK+ (robot ball) and the new Sphero RVR (tank robot). Both products can be run and moved using the basic Sphero app on smart phones and iPads. I recommend beginning learners with time to play and explore, then challenging them to complete tasks by coding the robot. The Sphero EDU app allows children to use block or scripted programming to code the robots, which is simple and a lot of fun! The RVR is more than twice the cost of the sphere-shaped robots, but the tank-like RVR also allows for more input options. For example, The RVR has USB inputs that allow you to connect an Arduino, Raspberry Pi (Mini-programmable computers), cameras, and more.

Item: Cubelets
Cost: $$$
Grade Level: 2+
Innovation Score: 4/5
Cubelets are produced by another company that is local to Colorado, Modular Robotics. Cubelets are a series of small robotic cubes; each cube does something different. Some sense, while others think or act. These are a lot of fun, and durable, but come with a high price tag. I enjoy giving students engineering design challenges, many of which can be found online, such as “Make a robot you can steer with your hands,” or “Make an automatic night light that comes on and spins when the lights go out.” I highly recommend this product, although it is very expensive to equip an entire class with these robots.

Item: Makey-Makey
Cost: $
Grade Level: 3+
Innovation Score: 4/5
Makey-Makey kits are a way to turn common, electrically conductive materials into “buttons” that control your computer. Learners of all ages have a great time exploring the world of electricity and conductivity as they try different materials with their computer. My favorite part of a Makey-Makey activity is when I say “Sure, you can play games today, but only with a new innovative game controller you make yourself.” All ten of my Makey-Makey kits still work today after seven years of use – I highly recommend this product.

Item: Oculus Quest (Virtual Reality)
Cost: $$$
Grade Level: 3+
Innovation Score: 2/5
Virtual reality, or VR, is one of the most recent installments in our STEAM lab. The decision was made after the brand Oculus produced a lower cost VR headset that could be used without the use of an additional gaming (high-speed, high-functioning) computer. These headsets have been extremely popular in my lab, with students lining up during free time before and after school. However, there are a few things to consider before investing in a VR headset. Currently, the catalog for educational experiences for the newer Oculus Quest is small, with about a dozen true educational experiences available. The rest are entertaining games, which while very immersive and fun, do not offer as much opportunity for creation and innovation. The two apps I have found that allow students to create are Google’s Tilt Brush and Gadgeteer. YouTube VR also allows for many powerful educational experiences. However, keep in mind, that as with normal Youtube, there are many inappropriate videos available as well. Be sure to create a safe account and turn the Restricted mode on if children are using the device.

Item: 3D Printer (MakerBot 2X)
Cost: $$$$$
Grade Level: 5+
Innovation Score: 5/5
As with many technologies, 3D printers continue to become less expensive as more companies produce them. We purchased a higher-end dual-filament 3D printer for school use, but many other 3D printers are available for a lower cost (I have heard great things about Dremel printers). MakerBot printers are known for jamming, but I seemed to have fixed that problem by using PLA filament, regular cleaning, and applying canola oil to new filament. Similar to owning an automobile, 3D printer owners should be aware that they should perform regular and emergency maintenance on these machines. Also, our printer can print with two heads, which means you can use two materials or colors, but we rarely use this feature. I have a lot more to say about 3D printing; if you are interested in purchasing a printer, please reach out to me and I’d be happy to elaborate. Overall, 3D printers open a world of prototyping and design to your learners, but it can be difficult, expensive and time consuming.

Item: Arduino / Arduino Digital Sandbox
Cost: $$
Grade Level: 5+
Innovation Score: 5/5
Arduino is an open-source electronics platform based on easy-to-use software and hardware. Students can program these “mini-computers” to perform basic tasks (such as blinking a light) or complex tasks (such as operating robotics; running systems). I have experience with the Digital Sandbox kit, which comes with everything a child needs to get started programing their own computer. I like that the coding language, Ardublock, allows for both block coding and more advanced scripted coding. Raspberry Pi is also a similar product I have used; both enable people of all ages to construct simple computer system on a tight budget.

Item: Lego Mindstorms EV3
Cost: $$$
Grade Level: 4+
Innovation Score: 5/5
Mindstorms are LEGO’s programmable robot systems. The most recent version of the robots are called “EV3,” although they’ve been out since 2013. Mindstorms are wonderful tools because they truly have a very high ceiling. You can make a simple vehicle that navigates a basic obstacle course, or add sensors to make a robot that can complete a Rubik’s Cube. There is also a global competition, called FIRST LEGO League, that allows learners to investigate and compete with new challenges every year. These products are very durable; we’ve had ten kits for the past six years!

Item: Vernier Sensors
Cost: $$$$
Grade Level: 3+
Innovation Score: 4/5
I was first exposed to the world of Vernier scientific sensors and probeware when I was a science teacher about ten years ago. I would consider these to be more scientific tools than toys, but they can help learners collect and display some really amazing data. Vernier offers a small, touch-screen computer that can accept many, many different inputs. Some inputs we have in the STEAM lab are temperature, light, hand strength, heart rate, pH, and motion. Vernier also probes and cables to connect to a TI brand calculator, which is a tool that many seven in grades seven and above already have. These probes are a great way to take your labs to the next level.

Item: Chromebooks
Cost: $$
Grade Level: 2+(to use); 5+(to be personable responsible for)
Innovation Score: 5/5
Chromebooks became popular a few years ago as they entered the technology scene as a less expensive way to use the internet using your Google account. Although there are Chromebook options available for around $200, there are also high-end models that will run about $1000. A Chromebook allows a user to log into the device using their Google account and use internet features through the browser Chrome. Other programs cannot be downloaded on the computer; only online programs and Chrome extensions can be used. Some teachers and parents may see this as a constraint, while others may enjoy less distractions on the Chromebook. Most teachers of students in grades five and above feel the Chromebook is a very useful tool and able to complete any necessary work in the middle school environment. If you are considering a personal electronic device for your learner in early middle school, a Chromebook is a great place to start.

Item: iPads
Cost: $$$
Grade Level: PK(to use); 5+(to be personally responsible for)
Innovation Score: 5/5
iPads revolutionized the world of personal technology when they entered the technology scene in 2010. A slim design, touch screen, and large catalog of applications make the iPad a clear favorite. I give the edge to Apple products when it comes to multimedia creations, such as photo and video editing. However, if you purchase an iPad for your child to use in school, be sure to also include a nice keyboard for word processing.

Item: PC Laptops
Cost: $$$
Grade Level: 2+(to use); 6+(to be personable responsible for)
Innovation Score: 5/5
If you are looking for a personal device that can also download and run programs, maybe a PC laptop is right for you. Entry level laptops may be a little more expensive than a Chromebook, but they may also be able to do a little more. Laptops can quickly become very expensive if equipped with high-end components. Before purchasing a laptop, or any other personal device, first think about what you will be mainly using it for. The main use that would require high-end components (such as graphic cards and/or processor) would be gaming. If modern, in-depth games will not be played on the device, most stock laptops should be great for school and personal use.

Item: Mac Books
Cost: $$$$
Grade Level: 2+(to use);
Innovation Score: 5/5
A Mac Book is Apple’s version of a laptop computer. Apps can be purchased through the store, and most other programs can be downloaded as well. As with the other computers above, there are many different levels of Mac Books available for purchase. These computers will be priced appropriately based on screen size, memory, processor and battery. Again, I would give the edge to Apple products when it comes to multimedia design, such as photo and video editing. If your child is really into creating professional videos, or may be later in middle school, then a Mac Book may be the option for you. Before making the more significant investment, though, consider the likelihood of your child or student breaking or misplacing the device. Many students break or damage their first devices – can you afford the replacement cost?

Technology – Software
Below are just a few examples of software or websites that may be used at times in our school. There are many more out there, and loaded on our computers, but I have distilled the list for this guide. If you have any questions about software not mentioned, please reach out to me and I’d love to look into it.

Scratch / Scratch Jr.
Cost: FREE
Grade Level: Scratch-3+ ; Scratch Jr: K-2
Innovation Score: 5/5
Scratch is the world’s leading tool for block-programming. Scratch allows people of all ages to create fun programs by dragging and dropping code “blocks”. More advanced students in grades five and beyond may consider this “baby coding,” but I still think even experienced coders can be challenged with Scratch. My favorite part of Scratch the ability to “See Inside” the code of other users’ programs. Students can find games they enjoy and borrow code from them to incorporate into their own games. Scratch is a wonderful STEAM integration tool for students in grades 3-6.

Item: Codehs
Cost: FREE
Grade Level: 3+
Innovation Score: 4/5
Codehs.com is a great place to begin coding education. Learners start by using KAREL, an introductory coding language used by students at Stanford University and all over the world. There is a large catalog and languages available to learn. I also enjoy that the introductory levels allow to toggle between block and scripted coding. Codehs is an excellent tool for learners ready for coding after Scratch; start with KAREL.

Item: Code.org
Cost: FREE
Grade Level: 1+
Innovation Score: 3/5
Code.org is geared for a younger audience and novice coders, but there opportunities for advanced learning as well. We like to use Code.org for our “Hour of Code” week because of its fun nature and simplicity. Also, activities can be completed without logging in, which can be nice, but it can’t save work. This is a wonderful place to start if you have a young coder in your family.

Item: Repl.it
Cost: FREE
Grade Level: 5+
Innovation Score: 5/5
I was first introduced to the Repl.it website a few years ago at a coding workshop. Back then, it was simply a compiler for different languages. This means that you could select any computer language, type your code, and it would run it. Since then, the website has become a little more robust, requiring a sign in, offering lessons, and saving previous codes. This free, online coding compiler should be in every coder’s repertoire.

Item: TinkerCad
Cost: FREE
Grade Level: 3+
Innovation Score: 5/5
TinkerCad is a basic, online CAD (computer-aided design) program that exports nicely to 3D printers. Tinkercad is simple to use for most learners, and it offers quick tutorials to help get started. Every year, TinkerCad also upgrades, with the Scribble (students can draw their own shapes) and Circuit functions being added somewhat recently. Even if you do not have a 3D printer accessible, TinkerCad can still be a fun way for learners to give their ideas life.

Item: SketchUp
Cost: FREE / $$
Grade Level: 6+
Innovation Score: 5/5
Last year, I was looking for something a little more advanced when students were designing buildings for a project. SketchUp turned out to be the perfect tool for the job. While it is much more complicated than and not as intuitive as TinkerCad, students were able to do a much better job creating building blueprints. Learners are able to use a free version and even export their designs for a 3Dprinter. However, for extended use, I would suggest purchasing the full version.

Item: YouTube
Cost: FREE
Grade Level: 3+ (YouTube Kids / Restricted mode may apply)
Innovation Score: 5/5
YouTube is a database of user-created videos about virtually anything you can think up. YouTube can be used for entertainment purposes or to teach complex concepts or project plans. Keep in mind, like the internet in general, there is plenty of inappropriate material available on YouTube. Furthermore, many videos force you to watch commercials, which also be inappropriate for your learner. If you are concerned about inappropriate material, try using YouTube Kids or select Restricted Mode on your learner’s account (last option when you click on personal icon at top right of screen). My favorite way to use this tool is to challenge learners to make their own YouTube videos (they don’t even need to be published). Learners may really enjoy showcasing their “expertise” in different areas, and will also learn about video editing and production in the process.

Item: Vimeo
Cost: Free/$$
Grade Level: 3+
Innovation Score: 5/5
Similar to YouTube, Vimeo offers a vast library of user-created videos. These videos are able to be viewed without commercials, but the library is not quite as expansive as YouTube. I view Vimeo as a more professional way to share videos if you are an educator, student, etc. Your viewers will not be subject to commercials, but this comes at a cost to the producer. I like to start my video searches on Vimeo, and progress to YouTube if not satisfied.

Item: Fantastic Contraption
Cost: FREE / $
Grade Level: 3+
Innovation Score: 4/5
Fantastic Contraption is an online physics game that challenges learners to build with different shapes and materials to complete objectives. Challenges start easy, and eventually progress to difficult problems that require complex problem-solving skills. One of my favorite parts of this game is the ability to view other users’ solutions to a problem once you have completed it. Learners enjoy watching videos of other people’s unique and “out-of-the-box” solutions, and they often learn a lot from them. For learners really into this game, there are other paid versions available, and even one on VR.

Item: Minecraft
Cost: $
Grade Level: 2+
Innovation Score: 5/5
Minecraft is a low-graphics, “blocky” sand-box world that learners can explore; mining for resources, building things, and mixing materials to create new ones. The game can be very simple (mining for basic materials and building houses) or very complex (creating servers for multiplayer games; constructing “circuits” using redstone). Although other games have come and gone in the past ten years, Minecraft astonishes me with its ability to remain a top-competitor in the world of gaming and innovation. Educators and parents, challenge your Minecraft user with STEAM objectives such as “Build a scale model of a famous building or structure; Build a model of the human heart; Create a world that contains all of Earth’s biomes.” Once these objectives are complete, learners can even use a screen recording application to save themselves giving a tour of their production.

Item: Google Earth Pro
Cost: FREE
Grade Level: 3+
Innovation Score: 3/5
Google Earth Pro is a wonderful, free tool that literally opens the world up to users. The Pro version of Google earth goes far beyond what the web version can do. Learners can drop their “person” inside of many famous buildings and can even fly planes anywhere in the world. Last year, before our fifth graders traveled to Moab, I challenged them to fly a fighter jet through Utah’s famous Delicate Arch. To learn all of the controls of the flight simulator, learners may have to use Google. Inexpensive joysticks are also available to give the flight simulator a more authentic experience. Google Earth Pro is certainly a favorite of my middle school students.

Item: Adobe Photoshop / Adobe Creative Suite
Cost: $$$
Grade Level: 5+
Innovation Score: 5/5
Adobe offers 17+ applications that students and professionals can use to create high-end multimedia projects. Photoshop is probably the most well-known of these apps, but others also exist to help edit documents, photographs, and videos. Our art teacher offers an excellent, in-depth class using PhotoShop. I use a version of Photoshop, called Elements, which is a more basic version that allows my students to edit photos. Adobe Spark is also a great app you can download on most devices to create simple, but professional, videos to share. I recommend Adobe products for learners that want to develop their design skills. Not many applications are used by both middle schoolers and professionals around the world, but Adobe products would fall into this category.

Item: Comic Life
Cost: $
Grade Level: 3+
Innovation Score: 4/5
Comic Life is a fun, creative tool designed for middle school students to develop different types of publications. They can easily produce comics, newspapers, yearbooks, and more. My students have a lot of fun with Comic Life, although the program can glitch a little at times (text boxes freezing, pictures not working, etc). It can be a fun and simple way to integrate technology and communication into any academic lesson.

Item: Google Suite (Gmail, Docs, Sheets, Slides, Forms, Sites, Classroom, Drawing, etc)
Cost: FREE
Grade Level: 3+
Innovation Score: 5/5
Google offers an incredible amount of usable tools for learners of all ages. Each app serves a different purpose, and we begin this education in our school in third grade. Although most schools will train and use these apps in the early middle school years, there are many age-appropriate tutorials available online for a deeper dive. Literally any academic subject can integrate technology into it by using one or more of the apps provided by Google Suite. Also, using these apps give learners real-world experience, as many professionals use these apps in their professional lives on a daily basis.

Item: Powder Game
Cost: FREE
Grade Level: 4+
Innovation Score: 4/5
Powder Game is an online physics sandbox simulation that dives into the world of fluid dynamics. It’s a complicated description for a simple simulation, but learners in early middle school really enjoy experimenting with this program. Caution: the link above links to a website that is home to many other games and advertisements, be advised of this when using. Basically, learners can add different materials to this world, apply energy to them, change effects, and watch the chaos, or lack of, that ensues.

Item: Kerbel Space Program
Cost: $
Grade Level: 5+
Innovation Score: 4/5
Although this “game” has been available for a while, I have just introduced it to my students recently. The simulation, which must be paid for and downloaded, requires learners to build spaceships to take “Kerbels” to space. The physics is on point, and even my eighth graders are challenged by the game. I highly recommend this simulation for middle school students that are into physics, rocketry, and space.

Item: Stop Motion Pro
Cost: $
Grade Level: 4+
Innovation Score: 5/5
Stop motion films are constructed by stitching many photographs, or still frames, together. This is basically how many animations and cartoons are made. There are many stop motion apps out there, with Stop Motion Pro being the one I have used the most. It is simple to use and easily allows learners to export their videos to Google Drive or elsewhere. Learners can have a lot of fun animating Lego figures or artistic projects being created. Most academics can be taught using this tool, which makes it nice for STEAM integration.

Item: JASON Roller Coaster Creator
Cost: FREE
Grade Level: 3+
Innovation Score: 3/5
This simple, yet entertaining roller coaster allows learners to build and test roller coaster designs. Points are earned for completing different tasks, and this can be a great challenge for students in grades three – six to do over the course of a few hours. Also, the simulation provides data and equations involving kinetic and potential energy, which can be a great connection for science classes. Be aware that high-scores and records can easily be found on YouTube, in case you wanted your learners to complete original work.

Item: Kahoot
Cost: FREE
Grade Level: 3+
Innovation Score: 3/5
Kahoot is a website and app that allows you to host a fun, interactive quiz show with your friends, students, children or coworkers. The quiz facilitator creates a quiz, usually about knowledge that was recently learned, and quiz-takers use devices to answer the questions. The questions and results are displayed on a projector, which is the only drawback of this app. Some other quiz apps, such as Socrative, actually send the questions to users, which can be really helpful. To showcase knowledge and foster deeper learning, some teachers even ask students to create their own Kahoot quizzes to hare with the class.

 

 

What other tools and resources are you leveraging to fortify STEAM in learning? Which of these resources is your favorite and why? Feel free to share in the comments!

 


About the Author:

Chris Lazartic is Director Middle School STEAM Coach, Student Leadership and Entrepreneurship Coach at Aspen Academy.

Chris moved from Delaware to teach at Aspen Academy in 2010. He has a Master's Degree in Educational Leadership (University of Denver) and a Bachelor's degree in Earth Science Education, as well as his principal licensure. Chris loves that Aspen is a place that continues to inspire growth on both a personal and professional level. Outside of work, Chris can be found hiking, camping, disc golfing, skiing and traveling. Chris lives in Conifer, Colorado, with his wife, Elyse, their two dogs and horse.

For more about STEAM at Aspen Academy, click here.