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Teacher’s toolkit

Closing the Achievement Gap by Bringing STEM Kits Home

Science Scope—May/June 2021 (Volume 44, Issue 5)

By Joanne Caniglia, Michelle Meadows, Davison Mupinga, and Katrina Halasa

CONTENT AREA STEM topics aligned to the NGSS


BIG IDEA/UNIT Science and math activities for students at home during a pandemic, or any time where there is an extended break in classroom learning


TIME REQUIRED Approximately 30–40 minutes to complete each activity, with an additional time for reflection

COST Average cost of activities for a class of 30 students is $10.50; median cost is $6.90

SAFETY No sharp objects or chemicals; parents encouraged to participate with their students

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread throughout the world, very few sectors were spared from its impact. In the United States, the pandemic resulted in schools changing their instructional delivery approach from face-to-face to online learning. However, switching to online instruction was not without its challenges. The online delivery format resulted in many students failing to complete their 2019–2020 academic year (Education Trust–West 2020). In turn, this lengthened the “summer slide” to include the months of March, April, and May. According to Quinn and Polikoff (2017), “summer slide” is a phenomenon in which students’ academic skills regress over the summer. Furthermore, researchers have suggested that summer slide is most often found in students from underrepresented populations who do not have access to technology or the internet (Education Trust–West 2020). To assist students who do not have internet connectivity during extended breaks, the authors created STEM kits in which educational materials and directions are placed in a bag and provided to students who would be most at risk of falling behind academically. Because these activities were aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS; NGSS Lead States 2013) and the Common Core State Standards (CCSS-M; NGAC and CCSSO 2010), the STEM kits helped students to continue their academic progress through hands-on activities.

While the concept of STEM take-home kits (from here on, “STEM kits”) for educational programs may seem new, food bags and educational schools-in-a-box have been used by various organizations such as UNICEF, Emergency Food Network, or Feeding America to provide food and academic materials to students during times of need. In this particular case, the STEM kits were funded through COVID-19 priority grants. In particular, the Greater Canton Foundation and Kent State University provided support to address the educational needs of children during the pandemic. The university provided printing of the directions for parents and students, while the Greater Canton Foundation provided funds for materials that would be included within the STEM kits.

The ideas for the content of the STEM kits originated from the howtosmile website (see link in Online Resources), a project of the University of California, Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science. STEM kits were distributed at no cost through school lunch programs in a large urban school district in Ohio for families without access to technology. STEM kits were also available at one library in the same district throughout the summer and early fall for parents to pick up at two-week intervals. In partnership with the nonprofits and school district, families without access to technology were selected to receive 12 different STEM kits. The authors then determined the time frame (March 15 to September 15) and distribution schedule (every two weeks) of the different kits. Approximately 300 STEM kits were assembled by 12 community and university volunteers every two weeks. In all, the authors developed 48 science (biology, Earth science, and physics), engineering, and mathematics activities.

STEM kits provide a way to reinforce STEM concepts aligned to the NGSS and CCSS-M using common household items, natural objects (e.g., leaves, stones), and even toys. Throughout the academic year, teachers may want to use the STEM kits whenever there may be an extended break from in-class learning. In these cases, teachers can have materials available, and students can help package them before leaving for break. Therefore, the STEM kits can also be used to complement instruction in an online or hybrid format.

In online situations, if technology is available, teachers can guide students through virtual labs using kit materials distributed to the students through school lunch programs or at a local library. For hybrid class settings, teachers can use the results of the activities as a foundation for class discussion (in a flipped classroom environment). Furthermore, teachers can create short videos of each activity via cell phones to encourage parent–child participation. Materials for each kit are between $0.01 and $1.00 (many are free) and can be put together by teachers and parent volunteers, ensuring that the STEM kits are available to all students and parents.

What are STEM kits?

Following are some tips to consider when designing STEM kits.

1. Include pictures or diagrams for each activity to help students visualize the construction process within the experiment.

2. Write in parent- and child-friendly language because many parents may not have scientific backgrounds of the concept being addressed in the activity. Although middle school students often work by themselves, parental interest is encouraged.

3. Include directions written in the languages that reflect the population of your students. For example, many of the resources adapted for the STEM kits are produced in both Spanish and English (found on the howtosmile website; see Online Resources).

4. Parents are not expected to provide any of the materials except water.

5. Use age-appropriate activities. You can use activities that may cross many age groups by asking higher level questions and asking students to propose creative and innovative challenges.

Examples of STEM kits are provided in Figure 1, and descriptions and alignment of 10 sample projects produced during the summer of the 2020 COVID pandemic are included in the appendix at the end of this article. Each STEM kit consists of all materials necessary to complete the activity (except water).

Figure 1
FIGURE  1: Sample of STEM kits: Make a Balloon Rocket and Making Paper Helicopters.

Sample of STEM kits: Make a Balloon Rocket and Making Paper Helicopters.

From assembly to distribution

To ensure that STEM kits are developmentally appropriate and target important school readiness concepts and skills, it is essential that the activities are “child tested.” Before an activity was selected from the howtosmile website (see Online Resouces), the authors assembled the activity materials, clarified the directions, and asked students within the age range of 10 to 14 to try the activity with guidance from the authors. This is an essential step because without input from students, the quality and effectiveness of the activities can suffer. To create multiple STEM kits after the first prototype, materials were gathered and preservice teachers assembled the bags (preservice and in-service teachers were also invaluable in composing differentiated directions, as well as proposing challenges for students who had prior experience and knowledge). Within each one-gallon bag were smaller sandwich-size bags, each filled with materials and directions for a specific activity. The number of activities included within the one-gallon bags was dependent on the nature of the activity and size of materials. In a classroom of many students, teachers can lay out the materials and students can package their own STEM kits within an assembly-line format to reduce time spent by the teacher.

Example activity

This section discusses an example STEM kit activity, the Strength of Shapes, by CuriOdessy (see Online Resources). In this activity, students test the strength of different three-dimensional shapes by placing books on top of structures created of paper. They then relate the strength of their shape to structures and foundations of buildings by asking, “Which 3-dimensional shape can hold the most weight?”

The Strength of Shapes activity asks students to predict which three-dimensional figure will sustain the largest amount of force by weight based on its shape (see Figure 2). The prediction will serve as the student’s beginning claim.

Figure 2
Sample of possible structures created with the Strength of Shapes activity.

Sample of possible structures created with the Strength of Shapes activity.

The Strength of Shapes activity uses index cards folded into triangular prisms, cubes, cylinders, and heart-shaped and rectangular prisms. Students are encouraged to explore other shapes, investigate strengthening the rim, and examine other variables that enable the student to provide evidence for their claim based on shape, height, strength, and material. Materials from the PBS television series Building Big (see Online Resources) are also included in the baggie to ensure that students can explore other structures. Materials include five (5 × 8 inch) index cards with tape affixed to the baggie.

Students are expected to explain which three-dimensional shape would hold the most weight (they should find out that prisms and cylinders hold the most). The students record their claims and use drawings of 3-D shapes to relate how structures respond to stress. At the end of this phase, students write how this activity relates to the engineering and the design process. This activity can be extended by asking such questions as, “Does it matter if the paper overlaps at the seam?” “What shape would you use to hold up a tower?” and “ What shapes do you notice in structural supports of buildings?”

During the virus quarantine, students were limited in their ability to communicate their findings because of inconsistent or lack of internet service or computers at home. Within the STEM kits, a Claims, Evidence, and Reasoning (CER) template was provided for students to help organize their thoughts as shown in Figure 3 (Muskoph 2017; see also Online Resources). The authors used these CER templates to create a visual showcase for students to share their work with each other. Students had the option to submit their work to the authors through U.S. mail, text, or email. Although many homes may not have computers or internet access, a large percentage still own cell phones to communicate or access the internet (Pew Research Center 2019). Therefore, the authors encouraged students to use their cell phones to create a short video or share pictures that explained their CER template electronically.

Figure 3
 Student work in CER template (Muskoph 2020).

Student work in CER template (Muskoph 2020).

The authors then utilized the presentation Template to Create Video Playlists for Google Slides from SlidesMania (see Online Resources) to display a digital collection of student work. (SlidesMania offers free templates that can be used on any device and is compatible in Google Classroom.) The final presentation was then shared in a variety of ways with all the students so that they could view each other’s work. The authors printed this presentation and mailed it to students who did not have internet access and emailed it to those who did. These slides were viewable from a smart phone, thus not requiring access to a computer.


With the support of volunteers to assemble the low-cost materials, teachers can create STEM kits for their classroom and distribute them to students either before a vacation break or at designated locations when school is not in session. STEM kits are a helpful way to slow the summer slide and fill the achievement gap during the pandemic, while helping students explore STEM-related concepts at home. 

Joanne Caniglia ( and Davison Mupinga are professors in the School of Teaching, Learning, and Curriculum Studies at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. Michelle Meadows is an assistant professor of education in the School of Arts and Sciences at Tiffin University in Tiffin, Ohio. Katrina Halasa is a science learning specialist at Akron Public Schools in Akron, Ohio.


Education Trust–West. 2020. California parent poll: COVID-19 and school closures.

Muskoph, S. 2017. Using claim, evidence, reasoning (CER).

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers (NGAC and CCSSO). 2010. Common Core State Standards. Washington, DC: NGAC and CCSSO.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Pew Research Center. 2019. As schools close due to the coronavirus, some U.S. students face a digital ‘homework gap’.

Quinn, D.M., and M. Polikoff. 2017, September 14. Summer learning loss: What is it, and what can we do about it? Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

Distance Learning STEM Teacher Preparation Teaching Strategies Middle School

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