Top 10 Back to School STEM Tools!

Even though it is still 100 degrees here in Texas, the time is approaching for back to school! I have enjoyed my lazy days of floating the river, drinking watermelon slushies, getting my nails done...ok who am I kidding? That happened one day, and the rest has been a whirlwind of traveling the country to attend STEM conferences, sharing about my programs, collecting new ideas, planning for the next year, and squeezing in time for family and friends. It has been a hectic summer, but I have learned a lot. So as you prepare yourself for the upcoming year, we wanted to share Vivify's top 10 back to school STEM tools!

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Note: Vivify is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites

1. Makey Makey

If you haven't already discovered Makey Makey, stop everything and watch this video below! These cheap little circuit boards bring together coding, invention, creativity, and electronics. Just plug into any computer, and with no software download required, watch as your students turn conductive items (PlayDoh, oranges) into a video game controller! We love using these with from elementary all the way to high school! 

2. Sphero SPRK

I introduced SPRK to my students last fall, and they have become a central part of my program. These little robots require no building, so all the learning is spent in coding. No little parts to loose or step on! Plus, the companion app is very intuitive, and students use block coding to build programs that control the speed, direction, and color. Tutorials can be used to guide students, but I found they have more fun exploring on their own. And based on recent app updates, Sphero is putting serious attention in making this a high quality educational product. 

Interested? You can check out our freebie on how students apply geometry skills to program a SPRK through a maze. We also have a companion post on 5 Tips for Teaching SPRK

3. Google CS First

Many schools are starting to teach coding as part of an elective or technology course. Others are integrating into afterschool programming. The video below has a powerful message on the value of coding in education. To support these efforts, Google has created this awesome free program that guides students in their first coding experience. Video tutorials show students how to create fun programs in , and teachers new to coding can join along in the learning. Google will even send you free materials to get started! 

I also highly recommend for fun games that teach coding in under 15 minutes! We set-up the  Angry Birds game on laptops as a station during a STEM Family Night. 

4. Google Cardboard 

I am exploring adding virtual reality in my STEM program. We recently purchased Google Cardboard, and at $15 a pair, durable for daily usage, and compatible with any phone from 4 - 6 inches, this seems to be the way to go. I also found a cheaper version that seems to work just as well, available here.

To get started, check out some fun YouTube 360 videos like this roller coaster one. For educational use, the new Google Expeditions Android app allows teachers to guide students through a virtual field trip of over 200 historical sites and natural resources. Some highlights include exploring land forms and coral reefs. 

An up and coming resource is Nearpod, a company that offers educational content with a VR experience. They have partnered with 360 Cities, which has an extensive free database of panoramas (including Mars!). However, a recent sales call revealed that access for 10 teachers will only cost the school $2, you have that kind of money? I found a more useful resource from this great blog post on how one teacher used VR with her students (on a more reasonable budget). 

5. Prezi

Prezis have been gaining in popularity as an alternative for more engaging Powerpoint slides. Teachers can make lessons more fun, and students will enjoy presenting their results with creative templates. If you don't use this already, I recommend giving it a try! Check out my first Prezi below on the Invention of the Airplane. 

6. LittleBits

Is your school starting a Makerspace? You will definitely want to check out these invention kits! LittleBits are similar to Snap Circuits as they teach the basics of electronics through creating simple circuits to make a light or sound. However, these magnetic circuits are meant to be the building blocks of a bigger invention such as an alarm, rover, or windmill. I haven't personally used the kit with my students, but I have coworkers who rave about them. I was however warned that the buzzer gets really annoying! 

7. Straw Rocket Launcher

Since I run a Space Club program, rockets are a must! A few years back, my students would make the classic straw rockets using a straw and paper. Air from their lungs would be the thrust, and it was difficult to control variables for a real design challenge. My life changed when I discovered Pitsco's straw rocket launcher! While a little pricey, they are well worth the investment. Students can change the variables on the straw, and with the launcher, testing can be controlled at various thrust levels (height of column) and angle of launch. Plus, rockets can fly to over 60 feet! This straw rocket launcher has been my go-to STEM gadget when conducting outreach events! 


8. FlashForge 3D Printer

3D printers are popping up everywhere in classrooms, libraries, museums, and makerspaces. When starting my STEM program, I went through several different brands to find a reliable and reasonably priced printer. 

Bottom line, you get what you pay for. I do not recommend the tantalizingly cheap NewMatter Mod-t. I got three of them on a special deal, and two never worked. Also, the Wi-Fi connection causes big issues when placing at a school, and the need to login online to print was a headache.

I highly recommend paying more to get a quality printer that you will actually be able to use! After asking around at conferences and trainings, we are very happy with our FlashForge printer. We have printed over 250 student designs for a Lunar Colony Design Competition, and with only a few minor issues in the extruder, my staff and I love this printer! I also recommend purchasing Simplify3D printing software if you will be printing large batches. 

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9.  STEM Building Materials

Stage 1 STEM is all about building a foundation of skills in problem solving, teamwork, communication, and grit. One of the best ways to develop these skills is to build! There are many building materials out there, but here is a list of our favorites (affiliated links). 

These supplies work great in a play area for open-ended play and discovery, or in STEM bins with task cards to guide construction. Many of the building materials kits include task cards (like the Keva Planks linked above). With my kids, I often let them come up with an idea to build and set their own goal without using a visual. This usually provides many opportunities to learn from frustration and failure when their creation is not up to par with what was in their head. It is also an added challenge when working in teams to not have a visual aid so that thorough communication is necessary to complete a design. 

Use STEM building materials to foster stage 1 STEM skills.

Use STEM building materials to foster stage 1 STEM skills.


 10. FREE Online STEM Curriculum 

Who doesn't like free? As you build your STEM curriculum for the year, check out our resource page for websites, apps, and toys. Some great starting places are:

And that wraps up 10 STEM tools to check out before you head back to school! You may also wish to hop over to our TpT store to check out our new Icebreaker STEM Challenges bundle. 23 hands-on and teambuilding activities are included to start the year with some STEM! 

Vivify is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites. This post contains affiliate links.