Grab your Free Guide - 3 sTEps to stem success

Worst Mistakes (and 1 Good Thing) with 1st and 2nd Graders

What a journey these last few months has been!
I have always taught upper elementary, but this year first and second grade STEM was added to my schedule.
I had no clue what to expect and how to get going with these age groups, but we tackled some STEM challenges anyway. I thought it might be fun to look back at the four worst mistakes I made
and one really good thing I learned! Maybe this will help you get going with STEM and your smallest engineers.
STEM Challenges with first and second graders! This blog post shares some mistakes I made that you can learn from!

Can you test a boat with candy?

STEM Challenge: Although this looks like great fun and a super project you need to read this blog post before you try it! It's a mistake I made!
Yes, you read that right.
Candy Boats.
Y’all I thought this would be so fabulous. First, of all, I know kids love to build boats. With my big kids, we build boats using a budget for gathering the materials and then we test the boats by counting pennies into them until they take on water. It’s a much-requested STEM challenge and my best-seller at TpT.
With these little ones, I decided to simplify the materials and use candy to weigh down the boat- instead of pennies. They LOVED it. But, there is an uh-oh…….

Do you know what happens when candy corn gets wet?

It gets sticky and then whoever touches it next gets sticky and then the next pieces of candy corn stick to your finger and then pretty soon it’s all just a sticky glob of candy corn mess. It only took one class for me to re-think this one. So, we tried a different version after that!
STEM Challenge: This is a modified boat challenge for first graders. They loved it a lot! Check this blog post!

With the next group, we used the same materials, but we gave up on the candy corn and went to pennies. This worked really well. The kids built great boats and we also laughed a lot at their counting. They count much slower than my big kids and lose their place a lot, and jump whole sets of numbers. This was still really a great STEM Challenge.

Scissors and kids don’t work – sometimes.

STEM in first grade needs some modifications! This blog post will help you with some mistakes I made and how I fixed them!
It never even occurred to me that cutting was going to be an issue. So, with the first class, I did the same thing I do with the big kids. I ripped off a strip of tape and left it on the edge of their work table, and fully expected they would cut it into pieces.
They hold scissors awkwardly and ruined a lot of tape before I had an epiphany. Which is my next point!

How do you deliver masking tape to students? Can’t you just give them a whole roll?

STEM Challenges: Here's what I do to help first graders with their tape! Read the blog post for more ideas for first and second graders!
After I discovered that cutting tape was going to be a problem I started doing it for them!
Now, I know, some of you are going to think this is a not a good idea. How will they learn to do this if it is done for them? I have several answers for this!
  • First, the tape cutting was frustrating and this was causing problems with the littles crying and complaining.
  • Second, masking tape is expensive! Doing it for them saves me money!
  • Third, my class time is limited and cutting it for them allows them to get busy quickly and not waste time with masking tape wrapped around their arms as they are trying to cut it.
And the answer to the question about just giving them a whole roll. No, that is not a good idea!

But, these paper straws were so pretty!

STEM Challenge: This is a fabulous rocket activity, but I made the mistake of using paper straws. Read this blog post to discover the details!
This fabulous STEM challenge comes from Brooke Brown of Teach Outside the Box and the first graders really, really, loved this one. It’s a simple design challenge, but great fun. 
Each child needs a straw and those large milkshake straws work best. But I ran out of them. So, I went to my closet to get more straws and I saw these pretty polka dot and chevron straws and grabbed those. The kids were able to pick their color and they got busy blasting off their rockets.
So, you ask, why was this a mistake?
Those straws are made of paper.
Just think about that for a minute.
Blowing through a straw.
Six-year-old kids.
It only took five minutes for me to have kids coming to show me their straw was bent and coming apart and wet……..Paper and blowing spit don’t mix. We quickly threw all those pretty straws away and went with a regular plastic straw which worked great!

Kids love to sketch their plans for a challenge! And, this is the one good thing I learned!

STEM Challenges! Even first and second graders will sketch an idea and then carry out their plan! Check this blog post for more!
So, after these few months have I had some great things happen? Of course! We have come a long way. The kids are getting better and better at working together, sharing jobs, and presenting their finished projects. It has been a blast.
So, here’s a good thing I learned! Check that photo above. This happened way back in September. I wasn’t sure if these younger kids would sketch a “blueprint” and I had not been asking them to. I figured this was something we could add later. One day, a student asked for paper because,  

“I have a great idea and I want to draw it and show my team!” 

And that is just what he did. Just take a look at his drawing and then they are building it exactly like he imagined it. Wonderful moment!

Alright here are some links for you for Boats and the Rocket Challenge.
Building Boats
Straw Rockets 

Come back and visit in January because I have the BEST EVER post coming about how I used Books and STEM together with first and second graders!

Thanks for stopping by!


  1. Hello
    I am trying to find your lessons on designing a playground, but can't seem to here on your webpage or on TpT – can you please direct me?
    Thanks Kate

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