Grab your Free Guide - 3 sTEps to stem success

Must-Have Materials for STEM

The must-have items is an endless list really. I have tried to narrow it down to five specific things!

I know I have said this many times, but the number 1 topic of conversation for me about STEM is always about the materials! I hear this from other teachers a lot: The materials are too expensive, the materials are hard to gather, I don’t have the right supplies, and so on.

Well, let me just tell you that this post is going to help you a lot if you believe any of those things!

A blog post about the must-have materials STEM teachers in elementary school need. These are easy to use and inexpensive. Tips on this blog are helpful.

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 need?

  • 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. 

Just in time for Spring here’s a STEM challenge that uses seeds in a unique way! You will love watching your students design and create a bird feeder! Students design their own feeder following the given requirements, and the end result will be amazing!

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:

Splash! It’s time for a water slide activity! Here’s a challenge to get through those summer months or summer camps. Try this project at any time of year and be amazed as your students engineer a slide that transports a toy to a splash-down at the bottom!

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 cross-my-heart 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.

A STEM Activity featuring a bucket has turned out to be one of our favorites and your students will love it, too! This challenge is to build a tower (although not a very tall one) that will hold weight. Students engineer a suspending “bucket” within the tower and the bucket must hold weight. The best part is listening to groups explain why their towers need a bucket. Imaginative answers are one of the high points of this challenge- along with seeing those creative bucket towers!

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) Here’s how- 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 actually have a person in their group that 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 is one that 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!

The Index Card STEM Activity is surprisingly challenging! It will give your students such a fantastic engineering opportunity to think through the problems and solve them. The best part is that your prep includes one basic material and the kids take over from there. Just stand back and watch them brainstorm and build incredibly tall towers. They will groan when the tower falls and then dive right back in and build it again. Be ready for cheering when it works!

The Bucket Tower Challenge (above) is one that uses straws, but if you are more inclined to not 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 and 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.

Kids love to build bridges! This is one of the best STEM real-life challenges we have tackled! It’s a suspension bridge! The first time we tried this I had kids telling me they had always wanted to build one. I even had students researching suspension bridges with their parents at home to help with their designs! Awesome!

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 and that is why 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 over and over.
  • 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 one of our 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.

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A blog post about the must-have materials STEM teachers in elementary school need. These are easy to use and inexpensive. Tips on this blog are helpful.
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