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5 STEM ideas using paper cups

My mission is to make STEM simple, and part of that means using easy to find materials you have at home, in school or something you can buy at the supermarket. 

This week it’s the turn of the humble paper cup. Yes, you’ll need a few additional bits like string, elastic bands, pencils and scissors but there’s nothing specialist here. So let’s get stuck in to these 5 STEM ideas using paper cups.

Pulleys

A simple machine that redirects a force, so when we pull down we can lift something upwards.

Super simple to create, just tape a cup (your pulley) to a box and attach a paper cup to some string. Pop the string over the pulley, and pull downward.

This example is a fixed pulley, but you can create a compound pulley with multiple cups attached to your box, this will enable you to lift heavier objects with less effort.

It’s also possible to attach a second cup to the other end of the string as a counterweight, a bit like a lift!

Hopping Frogs

An exploration of elastic potential and kinetic energy, this is simple and fun!

Decorate one cup with your frog, poke 4 holess around the rim of the cup (at 12, 3, 9 and 6 o’clock). Cut your elastic bands so you have one long strip instead of a circle.

Attach a paper clip to one end of each elastic band, string them through the hole in your cup, to the opposite side and tie off with another paper clip. You should end up with a cross.

Pop the frog cup onto the second paper cup, hit the frog and watch it jump!

Anemometer

These simple devices are used by meteorologists to calculate the windspeed, they basically count how many spins it does over a set time period and then work out the speed of the wind using this information.

To get you started, cut the tops off 4 cups, so you have a new cup around 1 inch tall, turn these on their sides and staple to each end of the straw facing opposite directions.

Poke a pencil with an eraser through the base of 5th cup then carefully poke a drawing pin through the straws and into the eraser.

Telephones

Paper telephones, you’ve all made them I’m sure! Poke the string through two paper cups, one at each end and then speak!

When you speak the sound waves cause the base of the cup to vibrate, these vibrations travel through the string and vibrate the base of the second cup, which means when you pop the cup to your ear you’ll be able to hear what the other person is saying.

Towers

Open ended and fun, hand them a stack of paper cups and maybe some index cards. Challenge them to create the tallest tower they can! If you want to make it more difficult you could set a timer, or see if the tower is strong enough to support the weight of a toy at the top.

I hope you enjoyed these 5 STEM ideas with paper cups, you might also enjoy trying this challenge: Can you stand on paper cups?

I’m Ruth, experienced primary school teacher and STEM educator. I have taught in primary schools since 2010, running STEM workshops & clubs for children since 2017.

With the first Covid-19 lockdown in March last year I had to close my business and think of something new. The Virtual Explorers Club was launched in July 2020, with the mission to empower parents and teachers to enjoy practical STEM learning by providing high quality resources and videos that boost your confidence.

It’s STEM made simple!

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