3 Autumn STEAM Projects to Fall For
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Fall is back to school time—and a great time to explore STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math). Learning knows no season, but each season brings its own ways to interact with STEAM activities.
Fun with Fungi
The cool, wet days of autumn can lead to an explosion of mushrooms and other fungi. To explore fascinating fungi, start by taking a nature walk to look for mushrooms and other fungi on the trail or growing on trees or stumps.
If you don’t see many mushrooms or want to get a closer view of the growth process, try growing mushrooms from a kit. Kits are fairly inexpensive and easy to use. It’s amazing to see how quickly mushrooms expand.
Whether on a nature walk or looking at the homegrown mushroom, young naturalists can sketch different shapes and colors.
Use mushrooms to make spore prints. Remove the stem and place the mushroom cap bottom side down on a sheet of paper. Let sit for up to 24 hours. Then remove the cap to see the spore pattern. Use these prints to make greeting cards or as the start of a drawing.
You can get more information about fungi from the North American Mycological Association (NAMA), or check out these books:
- Children of the Forest by Elsa Beskow is a fiction picture book featuring children who live under an old tree and shelter under toadstools when it rains. They wear red dotted hats and look much like mushrooms themselves.
- The Mushroom Fan Club by Elise Gravel takes readers on a mushroom treasure hunt that shares mushroom facts with fun felt-tip images.
- We Are Fungi by Christine Nishiyama blends fact and fiction weaving science into a story with the pictures telling more of the story.
Some types of butterflies, including Cloudless Sulphurs, Mourning Cloaks, and Question Marks, migrate in the fall. Perhaps the most famous migrators are Monarch butterflies. Monarchs migrate to Mexico and Southern California, usually in October. Watch for butterflies locally. For additional butterfly observation, you can visit a butterfly garden or sanctuary.
Waiting for Wings by Lois Ehlert brings the life cycle of different butterflies into focus. This book also has suggestions for planting a butterfly garden.
Butterfly gardens can support butterflies in all parts of their lifecycle from egg to butterfly. Monarchs and milkweed go together, but that’s not all you need—especially if you want to attract a variety of butterflies. You’ll want a garden that provides shelter, water, shade, and sun. Think about plants that provide nectar and food for caterpillars as well. And watch out for plants treated with a neonicotinoid. If it’s too late in the season to plant, use the fall to plan your butterfly garden for spring.
For suggestions on plants for your butterfly garden or to learn more about butterflies, check out the North American Butterfly Association or these books:
- Fairy Flight by Tracy Kane features the monarch migration in California in a story about fairy and butterfly loving cousins.
- Ghost Wings by Barbara M. Joosse puts monarch migration into the context of Day of the Dead in Mexico. Uncle Monarch by Judy Goldman also makes this connection.
- Gotta Go! Gotta Go! by Sam Swope takes readers through caterpillar to butterfly in this story of Monarch migration to Mexico.
Get Pumped about Pumpkins
Pumpkins are part of the fall harvest and are of course associated with Halloween making them a fall favorite. You don’t need a large or perfect pumpkin for any of these projects.
Estimate how many seeds are in your pumpkin. Will a bigger pumpkin have more seeds? Does the number of ribs in the pumpkin matter? The only way to see is to dig in and see. Cut open the top of the pumpkin and scoop out all the seeds into a bowl or jar. Count a rough fraction of the seeds and then multiply to get an estimate. Then count all the seeds to see how close you were.
To make a tasty snack, roast your seeds. Rinse them, pat dry and toss with oil. Spread them on a rimmed baking sheet. Put in a 350° F oven for about 20–30 minutes. You can add salt, seasoned salt, or your favorite spice blend.
Can you create a pumpkin seed catapult? A catapult uses the release of stored or potential energy to launch an object. To create a mini catapult, gather about 12 craft sticks, 4–5 rubber bands, and a plastic spoon.
- Stack 6 craft sticks together and connects both ends with rubber bands.
- Stack 2 craft sticks and connects at one end with a rubber band.
- Slide one of the two sticks between the bottom two sticks in the taller stack, so that the two sticks are perpendicular to the larger stack. Use rubber bands to make an X to hold the sticks in place.
- Use another rubber band to attach the plastic spoon to the stick rising above the stack.
- Place your pumpkin seed (or another small object) in the bowl of the spoon. Press the spoon down and release.
You can experiment with how many sticks are in your stack, how far you push the flinging stick into the stack, how much you depress the spoon, and how heavy your object is to see how these variables affect flight length.
The obvious pumpkin art project is carving a jack-o-lantern—either the traditional faces or intricate designs, but you can also paint your pumpkin with or without carving it.
- How Many Seeds in a Pumpkin by Margaret McNamara and G. Brian Karas introduces skip counting and estimating—and shows that you can’t always judge from the outside.
- Stomp Rockets, Catapults and Kaleidoscopes by Curt Gabrielson shows how to make a catapult and lots of other fun science projects with many recycled materials. The book provides background information along with step-by-step projects and questions to get kids thinking.
- The Pumpkin Book by Gail Gibbons takes readers through the pumpkin life cycle and gives ideas for projects using pumpkins.
Whether you’re exploring fungi growth, the seasonal movement of butterflies, or exploring math and physics with pumpkins, you can STEAM up the cooler days of fall and fall in love with science, technology, engineering, arts, and math.
About the Author
Sara Barry is a writer based in Massachusetts who focuses on outdoor family fun, local food, and nature. She loves exploring the changes in her environment throughout the seasons.