Grab your Free Guide - 3 sTEps to stem success

Must-Have Materials for STEM

Simple materials are used in most STEM Challenges. Take a look at 5 Must-Haves and how we use them!

The must-have items list is endless. I have tried to narrow it down to five specific things! These are items we use all the time and I know you do too! Look for tips about obtaining these materials in this post:)

Simple material used in most STEM Challenges and how we use them- featured on blog post with photos and tips!

In this post, for your convenience, you may find Amazon Affiliate links to resources. This means that Amazon will pass on small percentages to me with your purchase of items. This will not create extra costs for you at all! It will help me keep this blog running!

So, what are the materials you really must have?

This should look familiar. And, of course, masking tape is on this list.

  • Cardboard
  • Aluminum Foil
  • Masking Tape
  • Index Cards
  • Craft Sticks

Keep reading and find some tips for these materials and some amazing resources they can be used for!

#1 Must-Have ~ Cardboard

Easy and Free! It’s Cardboard!

Let’s start with the free material that is the easiest to gather and very versatile! Cardboard! Believe it or not, we use boxes and cardboard pieces all the time. We use the boxes for many challenges because we need a box like the Build a Bird Feeder Challenge. 

STEM featuring Bird Feeders- students design and build a bird feeder. Perfect for springtime in the STEM Lab!

For the Bird Feeder Challenge, students need boxes to use for the feeder or pieces of cardboard to make parts of it! I also take boxes and cut them into pieces to be used for many things- bridges need cardboard!

Another cardboard piece that you will use a LOT- tubes. Yep, good old toilet paper and paper towel tubes. I will link a vintage post at the end of this post about one of the ways we used cardboard tubes.

So, how is this FREE?

Easy-peasy- ask parents to send all of this stuff. When you mention that it is a free material they can send, I promise you will get tons. I have so many cardboard tubes I may never need another one! Here’s another idea- ask a local hardware store (like Home Depot) to save boxes for you. They will also save the industrial size tubes for you!

#2 Must-Have ~Aluminum Foil

This material is another that is so versatile and we use it all the time! ALUMINUM FOIL! That’s right- just foil. I get boxes of foil at our Dollar Tree in packages of 30 pre-cut sheets. You would not think that matters, but it is extremely helpful to have the pre-cut sheets. Trust me on this. We use this for so many things…, towers, platforms, slides, the food delivery company, and more. Take a look:

STEM Water Slide Challenge is an amazing engineering activity for upper elementary and middle school students. Teams must build a waterproof slide to carry a toy figure.

In the Water Slide Challenge, students used foil as a waterproof covering for their slides. The team in the photo learned the hard way that the foil needs to be on the inside of the cardboard tube (see we used those tubes again)!

So grab some foil or, better yet, mention this one in a newsletter that you send home. Dollar store shopping moms will pick up a box of sheets for you!

TIP: Did you know that rolls of foil can be purchased in different weights? The super-thin foil is less expensive, but flimsy when building in STEM class. You might want to try the heavy-weight foil!

#3 Must-Have ~Masking Tape

This material is a must-have, gotta have it, you won’t make anything without it supply. It’s MASKING TAPE! I promise we have used enough masking tape in the last three years to circle the globe. Really. We use it every day and for almost every single project.

STEM Bucket Tower Challenge- students use a simple building material to build a tower. The precarious tower is more challenging than it appears!

The Bucket Tower Challenge shows two essential materials- tape and straws. Both of these items are things we use often and I have some tips for managing their use.

Are you ready? Limit the amount! Duh, right?

So, how do you limit it and how do you measure it? (Because that seems time-consuming) For most challenges, I limit the students to 1- 3 feet of tape. I tear off the amount and stick it to the edge of our lab tables. To measure it I use the floor tiles which are 1-foot tiles. I just eyeball the length by using those tiles as a guide. The kids have a person in their group who is the “Tape Manager” and that student cuts the tiniest amounts possible in order not to run out of tape. They are expert tape managers.

The Bucket Tower Challenge can be completed with a small amount of tape!

#4 Must-Have ~Index Cards

So many projects use straws. Plastic straws are a material many STEM teachers are limiting due to their environmental impact. I have written about this many times and given tips for how to use straws and re-use them rather than throw them away. I will link you to a post about that at the end. In the meantime, let’s talk about Index Cards!

STEM Index Card Tower Challenge- students use a simple building material to build a tower. The precarious tower is more challenging than it appears!

The Bucket Tower Challenge (above) uses straws, but if you are more inclined not to use straws I have another must-have material that is quite versatile and recyclable.


Generally, these packs of cards are inexpensive and they can be reused. I have bins of flat ones, folded ones, and rolled ones. We just pull what we need from those bins.

The Index Card Tower is such a fun project. My resource includes some variations of the activity. All you need is a pack of index cards for each team (or half a pack).

I do have a few tips about index cards.

TIPS: Cards, like foil, can be purchased in different weights. I have found that the cards I purchase at the dollar store are rather flimsy. This is one item that you should grab somewhere else. Also, cards come in many sizes and I do sometimes cut larger ones in half for projects. Lastly, as I already said, save them and re-use them!

#5 Must-Have ~Craft Sticks

And, last but not least, is the ever-popular Popsicle stick, craft stick, tongue depressor. This is another material we use quite often. Not every day, but often. It can be the main building material or support for a structure. You can paint it, glue it, color on it, and kids will even ask you to poke a hole in it. (Which you cannot do!)

We have used them for catapults, towers, Newton’s Cradles, bird feeders, platforms, and many kinds of bridges. The best part is they are relatively inexpensive. A box of 1000 from Hobby Lobby or Wal-Mart is less than $5. That’s the narrow version, the fatter ones cost a little more.

STEM Suspension Bridge Challenge is an amazing engineering activity for upper elementary and middle school students. Teams build a bridge using basic STEM materials.

The Suspension Bridge project is one of my fifth graders love doing every year! We use craft sticks for all parts of it… and cardboard!

This project also uses hot glue, so I save it for 5th graders. We use low-temp glue guns and follow strict rules. You can, however, use masking tape for building suspension bridges!

I have some tips about craft sticks:

  • Re-use them! I save gently used ones in a bin and we use them repeatedly.
  • If you need a shorter craft stick use a wire cutter to snap them. I have students mark the spot where the stick needs to be cut and I snap them easily. It is a safety rules that students do not break the sticks. (Pieces can fly off and into their faces!)

I hope you found some tips about the must-have materials for STEM that will be useful for you! If you want to see any of the resources in more detail just click on the images.

You may enjoy these blog posts:

Simple material used in most STEM Challenges and how we use them- featured on blog post with photos and tips!

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