11 Creative Marshmallow and Toothpick STEM Challenges

STEM Challenges can be low cost ways to incorporate learning concepts in your classroom or maker space. One classic favorite of mine are marshmallow and toothpick challenges. We started a Creator Club a few weeks ago. Our kids meet once a week to do hands-on learning projects. We have kids from 4K to 4th grade. As you know that range is wide in abilities. The great news is that there are plenty of activities to do with wide ranges of children. Our first week we dove right in and taught the students how to use hot glue guns so they could build craft stick truss bridges.  This past week we had so much fun creating with marshmallows and toothpicks. I created a list of challenges that I dug up from the internet to use. After a successful Club, I thought you might benefit from this list of ideas, too!

A few tips before you try this activity: let your marshmallows get stale. I opened my bags two days early and that was enough to help them get a little crusty and help them stand up better. Because we’re closing in on Valentine’s Day, we had a little fun with some heart marshmallows I found! Using themed marshmallows adds an additional element of interest. We had no problems keeping the interest for an hour with these challenges. Finally, keep some of your marshmallows fresh. In an effort to curb uncontrolled eating of marshmallows, I told the kids that I had fresh, soft, non-crusty marshmallows for them…I don’t think a single kid ate a crusty marshmallow. They did ask me repeatedly for the “good” marshmallows – but I’ll take that over sugared up kids! I handed out marshmallows about 2/3rds of the way through the club time, when I noticed they were getting a little restless. The quick treat break had them back to building in no time and they were engaged and focused even after eating!

We did not get through ALL of these challenges in one night…but I’m happy to have these ideas all in one place for the next time around. Hope it helps you save some time, too!

  1. Build one dimensional shapes. For younger students this is a great way to reinforce basic geometry. Shapes that worked well for us included: triangle, square, rhombus, rectangle, trapezoid, parallelogram, pentagon, hexagon.
    Idea from: Arvindguptatoys.com

    Source: arvindguptatoys.com

  2. Build three dimensional shapes. The kids went crazy over these. Building pyramids, cubes, prisms, tetrahedrons, and rectangles (I believe the geometry term is hyperrectangle). These small structures were great opportunities for the kids to explore support. Some recognized immediately that their shape wouldn’t stand up with out connecting enough marshmallows and toothpicks. It took others a little longer. We found fun in the falling – but reward in determining how to get it to stand on its own.
    Idea from: Arvindguptatoys.com

    Source: Arvindguptatoys.com

  3. Create letters. I see so many opportunities for this from practicing the alphabet to spelling names, to snap words. It may also help reinforce letter structure for those students that sometimes struggle with forming letters. Idea from: Fantasticfunandlearning.com

    Source: Fantasticfunandlearning.com

  4. Build a house. The kids built simple houses at the beginning, but it didn’t take them long to begin experimenting with adding on and growing their houses (and tree houses!).
    Idea from: Simplydesigning.porch.com

    Source: Simplydesigning.porch.com

  5. Build a tall tower. Using our shapes in #2, we discussed the importance of stability in a structure. They built towers using different three dimensional shapes. We discussed the strength found in a triangle. A prism shape worked well for creating taller towers.
    Idea from: Classroomfreebies.com

    Source: Classroomfreebies.com

  6. Build a bridge. Once you tackle towers, bridges are a natural transition. This is a good small team exercise.
    Idea from: Meredith Vance

    Source: Pinterest.com

  7. Build a pyramid. Just like the bridges, this is a project best suited for small teams. Students can be challenged with limited marshmallows and toothpicks, or limited by time. This helps them stay focused and on task.
    Idea from: Almostunschoolers.blogspot.com

    Source: Almostunschoolers.blogspot.com

  8. Create animals. We loved this challenge! The kids created birds, lions, pigs, long dogs and other unique animals.
    Idea from: ApartmentTherapy.com

    Source: Apartmenttherapy.com

  9. Design a snowflake. We’re still in the thick of winter, so a snowflake challenge fits the mood around here! I thought the kids would be more excited about this one, but I think if I had older ones they would have gone crazy.
    Idea from: Julie Bennett

    Source: Pinterest.com

  10. Create a sculpture. I often try to build in time to free build. Sometimes I set a theme such as plants, animals, fruit, vehicles, buildings, holiday themed (Valentine’s Day!). Other times I just let them build.
    Idea from: Amazingmess.com

    Source: Amazingmess.com

  11. Make a constellation. I loved this idea when I spotted it on pinterest. Students love talking about space. Combining a natural interest with a STEM project can be great fun.
    Idea from: Artsymomma.com

    Source: Artsymomma.com

How to Create a Fire Safety Unit that SIZZLES!

Fire Prevention Week falls annually on the second week of October. This year that means it starts on Saturday, October 8 and runs through Saturday, October 14. It’s a great time to help your preschool, Kindergarten, First and Second grade students learn how to be safe in a fire and prevent fires in the first place! Fire Prevention Week holds a special place here at Brain Brigade, where Jerry was a volunteer firefighter for over 30 years. Tie his teaching and firefighting (and education) experience together, and we have created some awesome ways to carry out Fire Safety and Prevention into your classroom.

  1. Know your Facts! Help your students learn their address and how to dial 9-1-1. Younger students in the pre-K level respond well to using a pretend phone to dial 9-1-1. Simulate a conversation by answering another phone and asking questions like: What is your name? What is the problem? Are you hurt? Is someone you know hurt? What is your address? These tools can help a child be a hero by learning to speak clearly and feel confident with the types of questions they might face.Older students will benefit from learning their address and phone numbers. Have them practice writing it out. Or send it home as an activity to do with an adult.
  2. Tour a Fire Station. Most local fire departments love having visitors. They often have an educational program in place to host students. Get out of the classroom for a great field trip. One local fire departments hosts their kindergarten class each year. They have stations where they show the protective gear that a firefighter wears (dual purpose to explain why a firefighter wears gear, but also to help children to not be scared if they would be in a real fire). They have a station where the kids learn about fire equipment and tools on the fire trucks and the ambulance. They get to climb through and ambulance to see what they might experience if they are in an emergency.
    The students also watch a fire safety video and get fun give aways including their own fire helmets, coloring books, and more. Then they head outside for activities. They get to try spraying the hose at a “house fire” which is basically a wooden house with a wooden fire in the window. The “fire” is on a hinge, when the spray of water hits the “fire” it tips backwards on the hinge! And finally, they take groups of students on a fire truck ride around the block. The kids love it, but they also leave with confidence in what might happen in a fire or emergency, and how to keep themselves safe.
  3. Invite a Firefighter to Read. To complement your field trip, or if you are limited in your field trip options, invite a firefighter or chief to come read to your students! You can bring a partial fire station experience right into your classroom. Have the firefighter(s) read to the class as a whole, or break into smaller groups. Ask the firefighters to bring in gear and tools for students to touch and feel.  Have students prepare questions in advance (we all know the question that begins, “There was this one time…”!!!).
    One of our favorite books is The Fire Cat by Esther Averill. In this book, Pickles the Cat knows he is destined for big things, but he’s not quite sure what. He gets into some trouble and is not friendly to the other neighborhood cats. One day, he gets stuck in a tree and firefighters rescue him. He gets approval from the Chief to stay at the fire house…if he can be a good cat. Find out what happens to Pickles as he tries to earn a spot at the fire station!
  4. Develop vocabulary with a Fire Word Wall. Fire words make fantastic vocabulary words. Students are eager to write stories and draw pictures with words that are filled with danger and excitement! We have a list of almost 40 vocabulary words, some more challenging, in our Engine 65: Get to the Fire classroom resource. When you build a word wall and encourage your students to write a fire story, you’ll be amazed at how creative they can get!
  5. Make fire safety learning into a classroom game. We might be biased, but this is our favorite way to help students learn. Kids love games and we try to make games out of many of our subjects for our older students. Fire Safety games and activities are a perfect way to engage your students without whining!

    Not sure how to create a game? Read this post on creating classroom games. You can also read, Explore Like a Pirate by Michael Matera, to get insight and inspiration in creating games in your classroom.
  6. Play pretend! Kids love playing pretend and it is a great learning strategy. Have students create their own fire helmets to become firefighters. Then create stories to practice skills. Have students call 9-1-1 and recite their address, practice getting low and staying low (crawling on the ground because of smoke), practicing touching doors with the back of their hands to see if it is hot, etc. Pretend is a fun way to reinforce what students have learned! Make a helmet, have students decorate and cut out. Use bands of paper stapled to the helmet to customize the fit to each child’s head.

    And if you’re short on time, grab our Engine 65: Get to the Fire game. It’s a fast, easy download and you’ll be ready to print in no time.


Child Labor Laws-Repeal Them NOW!

Finn Folds

Finn Folds

My sincere apology. Mrs. Brainiac, the long-suffering better half of Brainiac Jerry, is here today to offer a huge apology. I promised Jolene Brainiac I would faithfully write a blog every Friday about creative tinkering, maker spaces, science, engineering, STEM or other engaging hands-on learning activities. Whoops. The last two weeks I neglected this important duty and Jolene Brainiac is on my case to get it done, so here goes.

See Finn Fold

See Finn Fold

I don’t want to make excuses for why I didn’t post my blogs, I just want to EXPLAIN. I’m not sure what the difference between the two is, seems like explaining why I didn’t do it is the same as making excuses but in the interest in getting this blog on the road, let’s continue on.

Finn Folds

Finn Folds

I’m busy. Really busy. I know everyone says that, but I really am busy. Yes, my four kids are grown up and on their own so that should save me some time. And I sold my house and bought a condo so my yard work is done for me. And I don’t volunteer for the fire department since I moved to my condo. I work more regular hours than I used to, not so much overtime.

Finn Does ALL of Grandma Brainiac's work. Finn wonders why Grandma is so busy.

Finn Does ALL of Grandma Brainiac’s work. Finn wonders why Grandma is so busy. She should use a stopwatch to keep on schedule like Finn does.

So, why am I so busy? Don’t know. Seems like the fewer activities and events I’m involved in, the more busy and frazzled I am. I’m guessing there is a math lesson here somewhere, like “if volunteering (V) plus working (W) plus kids (K) plus overtime (OT) plus cleaning (C)  plus husband (H) equals busy (B), then having less V, W, K, OT and C but the same amount of H should equal less then B.” And yet it equals 2B.

So, what is the common denominator here? And why am using a math metaphor in a science blog?

Let’s look at those equations again.

Equation one: V+W+K+OT+C+H=B

Equation two: H=2B

Comment on this blog post if you think you can explain how these two equations correlate to Why I’m Too Busy to Post My Blog Every Friday Like I Promised.

The explanation will be published in my blog next week. If I’m not too, well, you know.

Air Pressure Experiments (IV): The Big Can Crush

I have a series of air pressure experiments (Air Pressure I – The Small Can Crusher, Air Pressure II – Prank, Air Pressure III – AnticsBernoulli’s Principle), that I’ve done over the years that always amaze my students. I have fun doing these, too. I think when I enjoy a classroom demonstration, my students tend to enjoy it more and participate more, too. Our air pressure science experiments are hands on and applicable to real life. Plus, they’re impressive (or hilarious – check out Air Pressure Prank and Air Pressure Antics). These science activities gets students thinking about air pressure which is an ambiguous concept for students to grasp. We take air pressure for granted. We don’t think about it very often. We notice it in our bags of chips when we’re flying on an air plane. We notice it in the wind and weather. But overall, it’s not as obvious as it is with this Big Can Crush experiment.

What this video doesn’t show are the steps we took before doing this demonstration. We used a clean can, marked square inches, discussed various math concepts like square units and cubic units, and of course air pressure! We heated up some water in this can, removed it from the heat and screwed on the cap. What do you think will happen? Most of my students think it will explode!

Watch what happens:

Air pressure is a force acting on us and in us every moment. If it wasn’t for air pressure in our bodies we’d flatten and crumple like this can! Check our bundled download to try all of these experiments in your own classroom.

Hydroponics 101.1 Chemical Nutrients


We talk about hydroponics and aquaponics around here like it’s NBD. Jolene suggested that I do a hydroponics and an aquaponics 101 for the classroom for those of you who are new to this gardening technique. Hydroponics provides a great opportunity for hands on, authentic learning in the classroom. Since hydroponics deals with nutrients only and aquaponics deals with fish, I will start with the less complex of the two: hydroponics. We’ll first take a look at the nutrients used in hydroponics. Further posts will describe the procedures you can use to set up a hydroponics system in your classroom. After we describe the hydroponics system we will move to the aquaponics system for your classroom. Yes, it is possible to do both in the confines of a single classroom!


Hydroponics is the use of chemical nutrients to grow plants in a medium that does not contain soil. The nutrients used in a hydroponics system contain the typical N-P-K (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium) that we are taught that all plants need for growth. But the nutrients also contain numerous micro-nutrients needed for healthy plant growth. If you think that you can use the fertilizers from a garden center, think again, fertilizers like Miracle Grow are not suited to hydroponics because they lack the micro-nutrients. So while your plants may grow, they will not do as well as if you used the proper nutrients for a hydroponic system. But don’t fret, I’m now going to tell you where and how to get these nutrients very inexpensively!

Nutrients PH-Down

The three nutrients I have used are Epsom salt (Walgreens), calcium nitrate 15.5-0-0
(Amazon) and Tomato 4-18-38 (Amazon). You should also be concerned about the pH of your water. Where I live, in Wisconsin, our pH is about 8.0. Plants like a pH of about 6.5-7.0, so I use a chemical called pH down in my hydroponics tank which holds about 25 gallons (Brew and Grow).


If you have children growing individual plants and your water is alkaline, I have them add a drop of lemon juice to each of the containers every day or two.Hydroponics-101a

Watch for hydroponics 101.2 methods in a future blog post.

A Curious Encounter

Last week our local paper featured an article about a man in our area named Ben. Ben has converted a bicycle to an electric bike by mounting batteries and a motor on to the front wheel. For his next project, he converted a motorcycle to all electric. Finally, he converted a small car to all electric. His mileage for each vehicle is 60-70 miles per charge, which makes each of the vehicles practical for short trips in our area. If you convert the energy used to travel 60 miles using electricity, it comes to about 300 mph of gasoline. Recently, Ben lobbied our city council and convinced them to put in a charging station for electric vehicles behind city hall.

I called Ben and spent about an hour meeting with him at a local coffee shop. I found him to be a fascinating person. We spoke about maker spaces and how important they are in learning. I also found myself reflecting on my shortcomings in regard to learning. I consider myself to be a creative person, but when I compare myself to Ben, I see a fear of mistakes holding me back. The fear of injury when working with electricity. My lack of knowledge with electricity. He pointed out that these problems can be overcome by building knowledge in small steps.

I have resolved that I will begin this summer by building an electric bike using a kit. The best way to get something done is to DO it. Through trial and error I will succeed. We also spoke about how schools are great at teaching kids how to take tests. Where schools fall down is that we don’t teach kids to love learning, to create, to try new things, and that failure is okay. I was brought up in a traditional classroom and learned in traditional ways. What has made me the curious person I am today? I will have to do more thinking on this…stay tuned.

Why It’s Time to Make Learning Fun Again

Yesterday afternoon I visited a former student, Tanya. She was in my fifth grade class in 1993. What a joy it was to see her and meet her family. She is tapping maple trees on her property to make syrup. This is something that she learned in my class. We reminisced about all of the things we did in fifth grade. The many field trips, edible wild plants, rockets, and camp.

Tanya, who is now a school board member at my former school, is passing this passion for learning and trying new things to her children. Her family also raises beef, chickens and sheep on four acres of land. Tanya’s husband, Dave is a tool and die maker and is adept at fabricating tools. This led us to a discussion about educational philosophy. We discussed how schools have developed a culture of testing and the negative effects on children. We spoke about how learning should be novel, hands-on and authentic and the importance of play and imagination in the learning process. We talked about how maker’s labs can foster that kind of learning.

Tapping a sugar maple tree!

Sugar maple tree tap.

Too often as teachers, we are overwhelmed with all of the things that we have to get done in our classrooms and it is difficult to step out and develop new things. I want to encourage you as a teacher to put aside the textbook, and engage in something fun and novel for both you and your students.

Yes, it is scary to step out of your comfort zone, but it is equally rewarding for both you and your students. Will you fail? Yes, you probably will at some aspect of your activity. This is how you learn. Revise what went wrong and then set the activity aside for next year and try a new activity. 



If you set a goal of developing a hands-on activity once a week or even once a month it will make your job a lot more fun and will provide for an enjoyable learning experience for your students. Build your repertoire of activities and soon your classroom will be the talk of the school!