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Four Paper STEM Challenges that are Fun and Low-Cost!




Paper STEM activities are a great way to introduce children to STEM (STEAM) challenges. First of all, you have at least one of the materials. You can use printer paper, newspaper, construction paper, tagboard, index cards, and even recycled wrapping paper. Secondly, most students are highly engaged in these challenges. Some even see them as play. However, they are learning about teamwork and cooperation and usually some important science concepts. Most importantly, these fun activities cover the Next Generation Science Engineering and Design Standards.


Paper STEM: Creating the Longest Chain

Creating the longest chain seems like a simple STEM activity, but it actually takes a lot of thought. Students usually want to do the challenge a second time, so that they can increase the length of their chain. This is perfect because continual improvement is a part of the engineering and design process.

For this activity, each team needs one piece of paper, scissors, a ruler, and a glue stick.   Challenge teams to make the longest chain possible with those materials and tools. You can put a time limit on the activity if you want to. Personally, I don’t find that necessary. When the chains are complete, ask each team to measure their chain. Then, observe each chain. Students will find that the longest chains have the skinniest links. Discuss how that works.

Additionally, this activity includes math standards of measuring, comparing, and estimating.

This resource is a freebie in our TpT shop. It has been used on the first day of school, the last day of school, and many times in-between. Enjoy! Teachers that left reviews had success with students from kindergarten through fifth grade.



Paper Airplane Challenges 

What kid doesn’t like to make a paper airplane? For this challenge, offer all students the same size sheet of paper. Tell students that the challenge is to make the plane that will fly the farthest. I found that students could work on this project repeatedly, making modifications to see if they could design a plane that would fly the farthest.

The easiest task is to build a plane and throw it from the same starting point. Observe. Which plane went the farthest? Could students build another plane that went farther than their first one?

The hallway works well, especially as the students improve their building skills. To step that up, place a tape measure (unrolled and secured to the floor with tape) on the floor). Students need to read the tape measure and record the distance their plane flew.

Older students can have trials and record the average of a certain number of flights.

My fourth graders had five attempts. From that, students figured out the mean and the median. Next, we talked about the forces associated with flight.

  • thrust –  a motion caused by a push ( students arm or motor of a plane)
  • lift – caused by a forward motion (thrust) that raises the plane off the ground
  • drag – a force that slows down a flying object (air resistance)
  • weight/gravity – a force that pulls something down

Here is a video that you might want to show your class about these concepts.


After learning about these forces, students created new planes with modifications. At this age, they had ideas like changing the plane’s size and/or shape, adding a paper clip somewhere on the aircraft, and more. Then, they ran another round of test flights.

Students can watch many videos on YouTube with directions for making paper airplanes. Often students will watch them at recess or at home and learn even more about what makes paper planes fly the farthest!

Some students want to show off their creativity by decorating their airplanes. All in all, you will be amazed at the different planes that students design!


Paper STEM:  Paper Towers




Building towers is natural when it comes to paper STEM challenges! All sorts of paper can be used to make towers. The first two towers in the picture above were done at our Family STEM Night. Families were asked to build the highest tower with five sheets of newspaper and a meter of masking tape. You can see how different the buildings are! Before completing the challenge, families were shown photographs of different real-world towers. They had time to discuss various ways that paper could be manipulated (crumpled, folded, rolled, etc.).

After that, they had 20 minutes to build. Then, they measured the height of their tower.

When done in class, there are other concepts you can add. Here are science vocabulary words that I could introduce naturally as students were building.


forces-vocabulary-for-building towers


Even the youngest builders can add weight to the towers. With first graders, use a small stuffed animal. Can they build a tower that can hold the animal up? With older students, use gram weights. Ask them to build a tower that holds a certain weight. This allows for more success if your focus is teamwork. If your goal is to have students improve their models, you can ask students to build the tower that holds the most weight.


Paper STEM:  Can You Fit Through a Piece of Paper?

This paper STEM Challenge is for older students. It takes a lot of thought. Students might not be able to come up with a solution!

They need a sheet of copy paper, scissors, and a pencil. I would set a time limit on this one. Perhaps, 20 minutes.

Here is a video that shows some attempts and the solution! You might want to give your students another piece of paper and have them try it too! This is one activity they will want to challenge their family members with!



In addition to being fun and engaging, these paper STEM challenges make perfect sub plans! Enjoy!

If your students love building, you might enjoy this post: Build a Boat STEM Challenge.

And remember, it’s all science!


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