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9 Favorite Picture Books for STEM Challenges

Picture books in your STEM class, really? Why not? One question I am asked all the time is what scenario I use to set up a STEM activity. The answer varies with each challenge, but I might say a video, a real-life description, a rescue scene, a photograph, or a PICTURE BOOK!

Kids love being read to so why not use this to introduce a STEM challenge?!

Picture books and STEM Projects! This post lists nine of my favorite picture books and ideas for a STEM challenge for each one. Tips included!

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Now, I know what you are thinking…

Who has time for that? I know, right. Well here are some tips about using picture books to set up a STEM activity.

  • Keep it short. Some books are perfect and you want to read every detail. Sometimes, it’s better to read just a snippet or a page.
  • If possible show the book on your projector. I learned this with first graders. They all want to see every page. When I projected the book they were amazed and loved it. Everyone had a front-row seat!
  • Choose a book that will leave students asking questions. That is part of the design process!
  • Pair books appropriately. You may love a book about imagination, but students might build a structure that has parts that are not realistic. Imaginative, maybe, but real, not so much. (I once had a student that built a robot model whose purpose was to save the galaxy. The premise of the challenge was to build a robot model that an average person could purchase at Walmart. So, do we need a galaxy saver?)

Alright- let me share my favorite books with you and a STEM Challenge for each.

The Perfect Picture Book – Terrific by Jon Agee

I do mean perfect. The story: Eugene is stranded on an island with only a parrot. It turns out that the parrot creates a detailed plan for a way to escape- including drawing a terrific blueprint! (STEM, anyone?)

This book could be used prior to any STEM activity, but I have an idea for a challenge to suggest to you.


This fun activity is very challenging due to the marshmallows. Another way I made sure it was vigorous was by adding a blueprint requirement.

Students must draw a blueprint for their bridge and then build it exactly. Take a look at the photo! This team drew an amazing blueprint.

This one works very well with Terrific. You could also have students build boats or rafts to “escape that island”.

Our STEM Challenge about Building a Bridge (with marshmallows) has been a kid-favorite for several years. Kids love the simple materials and the task of making this one work. One alternative with this challenge is to create a blueprint for the bridge. A picture book is suggested for using with the challenge- check the post for details!

My Very Favorite Picture Book Ever – Tough Boris by Mem Fox

I love this book so much. It’s the ultimate book for encouraging inferring with your readers. The pictures tell the story and there are very few words. And it will make you cry.

It’s the story of a tough pirate and a stow-away on the pirate ship. There is a violin and gruff pirates and a parrot. Somehow those things are all connected. It’s a beautiful story.


Using Tough Boris as inspiration students can build a pirate ship. Test the boat with weights to see if it will float well.

The materials for this are easy to gather and to make it challenging we use a budget where students must “purchase” the materials.

Building Boats is definitely a student-favorite activity.

This STEM Activity is a runaway hit with my students. They cheer when they see Boat Building on our agenda and your students will too! There is just something about a STEM Challenge to build a boat and testing it to see if it will float (it will). It is totally fun to watch their faces and hear the groans when a boat sinks or celebrate with them when the boat holds a lot of weight! This is a challenge you must try!

A Fun Picture Book – The Bot That Scott Built

by Kim Norman

This is a sing-song rhyming book that builds the story in layers. It has some hilarious moments, but the most fun part is the repetition. It won’t take long for your students to start repeating the rhyming lines!


After reading the book you should, of course, have students build robot models. I make this activity challenging by requiring that the robot model has a functional purpose- something people would want to buy.

This one relies on cardboard tubes for the body of the robot!

Let’s build a robot model that has a purpose that students or their parents might need! This is the perfect STEM Challenge to try after reading The Wild Robot or The Bot That Scott Built. Reading and a STEM Challenge is a win-win!

Picture Book with Many Words- The Popcorn Book

by Tomie dePaolia

This book is really fabulous and covers the history of popcorn. It even includes a recipe! The book specifically tells about the oldest popcorn ever discovered and that leads to the STEM Challenge. (By the way, I only read that page- the book is too wordy for STEM class.)


The Popcorn Book mentions the specific amount of popcorn discovered in a cave. So the STEM challenge is to make a container to use in taking the really old popcorn out of the cave. The container has to hold the popcorn perfectly.

The challenge is all about volume!

It’s the Popcorn STEM Activity! This is one of my absolute favorites to use as an exploration into volume. A picture book is suggested to be used to introduce this challenge. Check this blog post for details!

Picture Book featuring Math – Measuring Penny

by Loreen Leedy

This delightful book has a young girl using alternate forms of measurement of her dog named Penny. I use it to talk about finding perimeter and area and then we have a STEM Challenge that features those skills!


In the challenge, students create a dog run with specific measurements using graph paper. We take it one step further and create dog yards or runs by building 3-dimensional shapes out of grid paper.

Notice the photo has a food bowl with little nibbles in it! The book and STEM challenge are great for a hands-on area and perimeter event.

If you need a fabulous resource for practicing math skills and combining a STEM Challenge here you go! This one is all about perimeter and area and using those measures to create! STEM Challenges are great activities to engage students in their learning. Research tells us that kids learn more by doing and EVEN BETTER this package adds literature to your STEM experience!

Picture Books about History – Twenty-one Elephants

by Phil Bildner

The book tells about the greatest show on earth and a bridge in New York. Barnum and Bailey’s circus marched 21 elephants across the Brooklyn Bridge to show people it was sturdy enough for traffic. What a perfect lead-in for a STEM Bridge Building activity.


This is an amazing challenge my fifth graders do every year. After reading about suspension bridges and viewing photos they tackle building one of their own. The materials are easy for this one – lots of craft sticks! This is an upper-grade challenge because we also use hot glue. I have seen this challenge completed with tape!

Kids love to build bridges! This is one of the best STEM real-life activities we tackled! It’s a suspension bridge! This engineering project is perfect for your upper elementary students. They will spend at least two class sessions creating their bridges and sharing them.

Picture Book Based on Science

What Do You Do with a Tail Like This? by Steve Jenkins

The pages of this book are delightful. Pictures show noses or tails or feet of animals and then on the next page the animals are revealed. This is the perfect book to use as a lead-in for an Animal Adaptation Challenge!


In this challenge, students must design an animal model that displays an adaptation. This is a great culminating activity after studying adaptations.

Students choose the animal they wish to display and some research may be necessary to make sure they are basing the adaptation on science- and not creativity. You could choose to have students create a pretend adaptation as an alternative.

Here’s a perfect STEM challenge to use at the end of your study of Animal Adaptations. Students will build a three-dimensional model of an animal of their choice and showcase its adaptation. This is a great learning experience for everyone. This blog post also suggests a fabulous picture book to use with the challenge!

Picture Book in Diary Form- The Diary of a Spider

by Doreen Cronin

What a fun book this is! It’s the day in a life of a spider who goes to school and other events students will relate to. The spider also spins webs and has wind-catching lessons! It’s a great inspiration for building spider cages!


The goal of this STEM Challenge is to build a container for a certain number of spiders. The spiders cannot be harmed and must be kept happy. To make it even more fun, students must add a viewing window for the cage. Don’t worry, the spiders are not real- I use plastic spiders I purchased at Halloween time!

This is a really fun challenge during sharing time as each team shows how their cage opens and how the viewing window works.

Perfect for your study of spiders! It’s a STEM Challenge featuring arachnids. Students will totally think the spiders are real and you will have a little fun “tricking” them. They will have a blast making a cage for those spiders! ! A picture book is suggested as one way to use this challenge!

A How-To Picture Book!

How I Became a Pirate by David Shannon

So much fun- This is the story of Jeremy who is at the beach with his family. The family is not paying attention and they don’t see the pirate ship approaching and pirates rowing to shore. Jeremy decides to join the pirates and is soon learning some pirate vocabulary. This is a great book for designing something pirates love!


Pirates and treasure chests, of course- it’s a challenging activity. Making the curve on top of that chest is not easy!

I have used a variation of this challenge with first graders. They only had to build a container for treasure. No lids! Materials for this one are simple – paper and tape and pipe cleaner pieces.

In this STEM Challenge, students will be building a treasure box to hold any treasure of their choice. The rules of the task are daunting- as daunting as a pirate! Speaking of pirates-STEM and reading are a perfect combination. This fabulous and quick challenge is inspired by a picture book. Check the post for details!

Reading and STEM are a perfect combination. Grab a book and use it to get the challenge started. The engaging books I have shared today are so much fun and well-loved by kids! Click on any of the images to see details of the books or resources.

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Picture books and STEM Projects! This post lists nine of my favorite picture books and ideas for a STEM challenge for each one. Tips included!