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How to Change a STEM Challenge with a Book

Have you ever combined STEM and a book?

Let’s be honest. Every time we teach a lesson we approach it a little differently. We learn as the students learn and the next time we try something we build from that experience.

This is especially true for me and STEM. Every single time I try a challenge I change it up in some way. Change the rules, add a material, use fake money to purchase materials, or add a little flair- like an apple or a pumpkin.

Ha! Keep reading!

STEM and Reading- try reading aloud a picture book and then build a structure. Check this post for details!

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Using Books

The first time I pulled out a picture book to use with a challenge the kids were startled. Now, that is really sad. They had no idea we could learn something from a book in order to tackle a design. They had no idea that a STEM Challenge could be inspired by a book.

Well, I showed them! The first challenge I tried a book with is one I call the Popcorn Challenge and we used The Popcorn Book by Tomie dePaola. I will link a blog post about that challenge at the bottom.

In the meantime, we have tried many other books that lead us right into a STEM Challenge. This one involves building a platform. And the book is one of my favorites.

STEM and Reading! Here is a blog post telling ways to use a book as inspiration for a platform challenge!

The Platform Challenge

We have four different platform challenges, but this design idea uses different materials. The ones we normally build are made of either craft sticks, paper, or straws. This one is a combination of things.

I combined the craft sticks and straws and then decided to add a piece of cardboard to see what the students would try. The idea was that the platform must hold weight. In this case, the weight just happened to be a cute tiny pumpkin.

STEM Platforms! Here is a blog post telling ways to use a book as inspiration for a platform challenge!

Another Version

I tried this again with a different class and we used an apple instead of a pumpkin.

Look closely at the photos. In the top photo the team used those straws in such a clever way. They are keeping the platform from swaying.

In the bottom photo, the team added side rails to their platforms to keep the apple from rolling off.

STEM Platforms! Use a book for inspiration to build the structure!

Look at the photo of this one! Notice the way students are using the flexible part of the straw!

We have tried adding weight to the platform in many ways. A bowl of pennies will work and many types of fruit will stay in place.

If you want to make this harder try an orange- students will have to work hard to keep that round object in place!

STEM - Use a seasonal fruit to place on top of the platform!

I love this one! All of those craft sticks created their base so the platform would stand up. When I asked why they didn’t just use the cardboard at the bottom they told me two things.

First, the sticks on the bottom were heavier. Secondly, it is hard to get taped sticks to stay together when you put something heavy on top of them!


  • Don’t be afraid to completely change the materials of a challenge. If your students just cannot get something to work, add a material to help them. I will sometimes stop the class in the middle of attempting something and survey them with this question: “If I add one material to what you have, what would you want?”  And then I usually add the one thing they seem to think will work. (Real-life, right?)
  • Even if the challenge you are trying is something you purchased (from me), if it is not working, try something else. All classes are different. My students may have found a way to make a car roll or make a tower stand, but that does not mean everyone will make it work. (BTW, my students sometimes fail, too!)
  • Add wonky things- like an apple or a tiny pumpkin. They love it! It also adds some problem-solving to the challenge. The apples would not sit still on the platforms so students had to design the device and keep the apple from falling off.

Now, (drum roll) THE BOOK

This is is the perfect book to use to inspire building something with an apple. Do you know this story?

It is a profound story. I read this to my third graders every year. It’s a story we needed when the disagreements, tattling, or kid-drama was happening too often.

Mr. Peabody’s Apples

Mr. Peabody is a teacher at the local elementary school. He also coaches a Little League baseball team in the summertime. One Saturday, after practice, Mr. Peabody walks through the small town and picks up an apple from the sidewalk fruit stand.

Tommy, a young boy, sees him do this and decides the apple was not paid for. Tommy tells his friends about the stolen apple. The next Saturday, Tommy gathers some friends near the fruit stand and they all watch Mr. Peabody get an apple without paying for it. They tell more friends and their parents and those people tell more people. The next Saturday only one of the players comes to baseball practice. Mr. Peabody is puzzled. The player that is there, Billy, tells Mr. Peabody about the apples. They walk back into town and Mr. Peabody takes Billy to the fruit stand. They talk to the owner and Billy learns that Mr. Peabody pays for the apple every Saturday before he goes to practice. Billy tells Mr. Peabody that he is going to go and tell Tommy about this. Mr. Peabody says, “Please tell Tommy to come and see me.” When Tommy arrives at Mr. Peabody’s house he is told to go home and get his pillow. The two go to the ball field with the pillow and climb to the top of the bleachers. Mr. Peabody hands Tommy a pair of scissors and tells him to cut open the pillow and shake the feathers out.

The wind carried the thousands of feathers far and wide.

Tommy wants to know if that is all he has to do for starting the rumor. Mr. Peabody replies,

There is one more thing. Now you must go and pick up all the feathers.

When Tommy says this is not possible, Mr. Peabody tells him that this is also true of the damage done by spreading the rumor that he is a thief. Wow! It is a perfect little book for teaching a valuable lesson. My students love this book and sit on the edge of their seats as they wait to see what will happen to Tommy.

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