Grab your Free Guide - 3 sTEps to stem success

When I was Five and More STEM Ideas!

“It was like herding cats!” That was my answer to my husband the other day when he asked how my day had gone. Seriously, the days I have first and second graders are just hard – fun, but exhausting. That is until I found the SECRET to STEM and the littles!

Reading and STEM together! Here's a blog post suggesting five picture and five STEM challenges you can complete today!

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Are you ready for the secret to STEM ideas for your first and second graders? These are easy. They use materials you already have. BEST OF ALL….. they all involve reading!

Reading and STEM! This blog post suggests five picture books to use with STEM challenges for first and second grade. Included are materials and procedures! #teachersareterrific

I have fabulous book suggestions for you and then details about the STEM Challenges we completed!

Terrific by Jon Agee

The first part of the STEM secret is this: Read a picture book!   Oh, how we loved this one! Eugene, a grumpy old man, wins a trip to Bermuda and his response is, “I’ll probably get a nasty sunburn!” (He is actually negative about everything!) On the ship going to Bermuda, they encounter a storm and abandon the ship. Everyone except Eugene is rescued and he ends up on an island alone….   Until a parrot shows up and begins to talk to him.

In fact, the parrot draws an elaborate BLUEPRINT for a boat. (Think STEM, here!) Eugene uses the blueprint and the parrot’s directions to build the boat and leave the island. When he is finally rescued by a passing ship he discovers the owner of the parrot is the boat’s captain. And the captain declares that the parrot cannot talk! What? You have to read this one to your kids. (In the end, Eugene keeps the parrot!)

So, what is the STEM Challenge?

We decided that if Eugene wanted to keep the parrot and travel with him he would need a birdcage, so that is what we built! Here’s what you need for this one: craft sticks, construction paper, interlocking cubes, coffee stir sticks, and masking tape. Each group had 4 craft sticks, paper as needed, 10 cubes, a handful of coffee stir sticks, and tape as needed.

Reading and STEM together! Here's a blog post suggesting five picture and five STEM challenges you can complete today!

With my older students, I always limit their tape, but with first and second grade I give them about two feet at a time and repeat as needed (within reason).

In the above photos, the top team built the bars of their birdcage out of construction paper and it was very flimsy. The tall tower of cubes in the center is helping hold it up. In the bottom photo, the team built the bird out of cubes and added the pink food bowl!

Diary of a Spider by Doreen Cronin

Totally funny! The kids loved the adventures of the spider as he tells his story of day-to-day life. We loved the page where the spiders learn to get airborne and they make flashcards to help practice! And the page where two spiders try to see-saw made the kids giggle! The page we talked about the most was a spider flying through the air attached to a fly. We decided the spider lassoed the fly with his silk and then just stayed attached in order to fly through the air.

Here’s the STEM Challenge:

We made spider parachutes!

And this is the second part of the STEM secret! Invent a building project based on the book! For this one, you need tissue paper, string, black construction paper, clear tape, and pipe cleaners. Each team got one piece of tissue, four pieces of string that I cut in two-foot lengths, a half sheet of black paper, one pipe cleaner, and a container of clear tape.

Reading and STEM together! Here's a blog post suggesting five picture and five STEM challenges you can complete today!

I did show them how to attach the strings to the corners of the tissue paper and they could cut the paper into a circle if they wanted to.

A Color of His Own by Leo Lionni

All animals have a color- except chameleons. They change to match their surroundings and this is sad to one little chameleon. He decides to sit on a green leaf forever so he will always be green and have a color of his own. But in the autumn the leaf turns yellow and so does he. And then it turns red and so does he and then the leaf falls off the tree dumping the chameleon, too. The chameleon is very sad until he meets another one and they decide no matter where they go they will go together.

 So they stay side by side and are always the same color as each other. What a sweet story of friendship!   Here’s the third part of the STEM secret: Since you are inventing these projects while IN YOUR CLASSROOM, you are very likely to choose materials you already have! Easy-peasy!

The STEM Challenge:

The idea I had for what to build was naturally going to be a chameleon, but what if we went a step further. What if our chameleon could change into something and not just match the color? Take a look at what the second graders made.

For these chameleons, you need cardboard tubes, small felt pieces, construction paper, googly eyes (optional), pipe cleaners, and tape.

Reading and STEM together! Here's a blog post suggesting five picture and five STEM challenges you can complete today!

 In the top photo, the team made the chameleon turn into a can of peas. The tube is the can and it has peas made of green felt inside it. The chameleon can still be seen on the outside of the can. In the second photo, the chameleon turned into a pig with a snout nose and a curly tail. The pink chameleon is still visible (which was a requirement).

My instructions for this one were: Turn your chameleon into something else! Make it something unusual. When your model is complete we should be able to see what it is and also still be able to see that it is a chameleon.  This was a spectacular challenge, but it was hard. I had to help with suggestions about making the chameleon visible. This would be a great challenge for older kids, too.

The Knight and the Dragon by Tomie dePaola

In this book, you meet a knight that has never fought a dragon and a dragon that has never fought a knight. They both read books and practice to prepare for their big battle. At the end of the battle, all they have left are burned or broken things. A princess rushes in with new books to teach the dragon how to barbecue using the knight’s suit of armor as a grill. A funny, funny little book.

The STEM Challenge:

Of course, we built castles! And here’s a fourth part of the STEM secret: Let the kids invent the project. These castles were suggested by some first graders!

You need cardboard tubes and interlocking cubes. Since these were first graders this is all I used and they did a great job. We used two sizes of tubes and those were mostly the turrets of the castle. The cubes became the walls. I did not limit the amount of either material since we could reuse them later.

Reading and STEM together! Here's a blog post suggesting five picture and five STEM challenges you can complete today!

When I Was Five by Arthur Howard

This is the sweet story of a boy who tells about his favorite things when he is five. He wants to be an astronaut or a cowboy, or both. A pterodactyl is his favorite dinosaur and his favorite secret place is a pond full of frogs. When he turns six, he has new favorites and now loves T-Rexes.

Our STEM project was to build a dinosaur!

Our dinosaurs were made from cardboard tubes, straws, interlocking cubes, construction paper, googly eyes, and masking tape. Above you can see the top dinosaur is a stegosaurus since he has spikes down his back. The bottom dino is showing you his teeth!

Reading and STEM together! Here's a blog post suggesting five picture and five STEM challenges you can complete today!

In the top photo, the dinosaur has a long spike down his back, a very long neck and a long tail. He is clearly another stegosaurus. So, is the bottom one, but his spikes are hand-drawn. Didn’t these first graders do a great job with their dinosaurs?  

So, that’s it, STEM friends! Five fabulous books and five STEM challenges for your smallest engineers! And lots of secrets along the way! Just a recap about those secrets:  

  • Read a picture book.
  • Invent a building project based on the book.
  • Use simple materials you already have.
  • Let the kids invent the projects.


  1. SC Teacher 28 says

    WOW! These are some fantastic ideas. I am excited to try a few of them with my second graders. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Carol Davis says

    I am so glad you enjoyed this post! I have two more planned like this one- in March and April so keep checking back for more! Thank you!

  3. Carol Davis says

    Thanks so much for visiting Emma! Ideally three in a group is great! Partners are also good, but for me this uses too many materials. Have fun!

  4. Noreen DeMarco says

    Thank you so much for all of these wonderful ideas! Can’t wait to explore with my K-2nd Graders and see what they create!

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