Engage Your Teen In At-Home Summer STEM Projects

If you have a teen, you may be thinking about how they could be spending their free time during the summer vacation or other time off. Summer is a great time to pursue independent STEM projects at home! In this article, I’ll tell you about my own family’s approach to encouraging our teen to do at-home summer DIY STEM projects, and share some of the resources we used to find good projects and tutorials. 

teenage girls building solar powered robot

My family’s process

When my oldest daughter was finishing 8th grade, I spent time pondering how she could spend her summer vacation. She had aged out of many camps and was still too young for a summer job. I wanted her to have fun but also be productive. She loved technology and tinkering, so I thought working on projects might help her develop new skills and prepare her for high school STEM classes.

A few weeks before school got out, I sat down with her and shared my idea of having her work on STEM projects—of her choosing—during the summer. I suggested she pick 3–4 projects to tackle and write up a brief description of each project, including materials and tools required, costs, estimation of time involved, and expectations on what she would learn.

Honestly, this wasn’t a hard sell. My daughter was receptive to the idea—especially since she was allowed to explore the things that interested her. She compiled her list and reviewed them with my husband and me. She settled on four projects: (1) designing and coding a LEGO Mindstorm robot; (2) building a simple robot with littleBits; (3) exploring Arduino, an open-source electronics platform; and (4) building a quadcopter airframe using pool noodles (which sounded like fun to me, too!). 

Once she decided on the projects, she assembled a list of materials, supplies, and tools she’d need, and we ordered them from some of the awesome suppliers we’d found online (see below, and the resource guide). The regular deliveries of cool supplies and gadgets added a lot of excitement to the summer!

Discussing the idea of a summer project with your child

Think this could be a good idea for your child? I advise discussing the idea of doing a summer project with them and gauging their interest. There is no right path or approach to exploring projects; every child’s process will be different. They may work on one project or multiple ones; some may be completely self-motivated, others might need some support and encouragement from their parents. The important thing is that they get to work on something they’re curious and excited about and have chosen for themself. The most important thing is that your child has ownership over their projects and can discover, learn, and even make mistakes (and troubleshoot their way out of them) independently. 

STEM project ideas. What’s possible?

Some teens might already have project ideas in mind and can’t wait to jump in, while others might need some assistance choosing a project and getting started. There are plenty of resources (many free!) providing guidance, ideas, materials, and supportive communities in the sciences, computer science, engineering, and even entrepreneurship, to mention just a few STEM areas. Here are some possibilities. 

  1. Diving into hands-on engineering and tech projects can be a great summer activity for teens who like to tinker, design, and build. If this sounds like your child, read my article, A Guide to DIY STEM Projects, which is a roadmap to sourcing ideas, instructions, and the necessary tools and supplies for projects that kids can do at home.
  2. If your teen is interested in coding, check out this resource for high school hackathons, a great way for even beginning coders to learn and work with other students on team projects, often from home in virtual events. 
  3. Teens interested in doing scientific research projects can be mentored by university grad students and professors, and get their articles published: take a look at my article about the Journal of Emerging Investigators, JEI
  4. And high school and middle school students who are excited about inventing and launching products on the market will find plenty of resources and support at Moonpreneur

Pro Tip! Document projects for your teen’s college application portfolio

While my primary agenda was not to create projects for my daughter’s college applications—since she was in 8th grade, that seemed very far off in the future!—we did suggest that she photograph each of her projects and write a short description of what she did and how the process went. It became a habit with her, so that by the time she sat down to create her Common App three years later, she already had a substantial body of material to reference. For more about this topic, read my article on How to Make Your STEM Activities Shine on the Common App.

Epilogue

My daughter’s tech interests evolved throughout high school and she is currently pursuing a computer science degree. She still loves to do engineering projects on the side, though! She now buys vintage computer keyboards from the 90s and builds converters to get them to work with modern computers.

School vacations can be the perfect time for teens to explore and learn while having fun and feeling a sense of accomplishment. It’s never too late in the summer to start working on STEM projects, or they can be a great activity during winter and spring vacations. Run the idea by your teen and see what they think. Let me know what your teen takes on! I’d love to see pictures, too.

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