Several years ago, when my teenage daughter had aged out of most summer camps but wasn’t ready for a summer job, we tried an at-home summer experiment: we challenged her to pick a few tech projects that she would work on over the summer. It was a success: she researched, chose, and completed her projects, and documented them for her college application portfolio. And we learned a lot along the way about the resources available at the time. If your teen is a hands-on explorer, I encourage you to read about our experience here.
With growing interest in maker projects and the evolution of technology you can use at home, teens can pursue their interests in STEM by tackling their own tech projects at home, both during the school year and over the summer. With hands-on DIY projects, teens can explore, experiment, express themselves creatively, and learn at their own pace. There’s an extensive range of STEM activities to do at home, offering options for kids of all ages, skills, and experience levels, from beginners to intermediate to experienced STEM makers. And it’s easy to source most of the tools and supplies online.
If your teen likes to tinker and build things, has a hobby, or is into technology and art, doing a STEM project at home could be a rewarding experience, particularly during the summer, when they have plenty of time and may need something to do.
Not sure where to start?
This article will introduce you to some of the most popular and instructive online resources for at-home DIY tech projects available today. The first step—which can be a lot of fun in itself—is to seek out the right project or projects. Your teen may enjoy the research process and discover new areas that spark their interest and curiosity. This guide is intended for teens who want to take initiative and devise their own project, but these resources can also be used by younger children with some support or assistance from parents. Whether your child already has a project in mind or you just want to see what’s possible and get some ideas, the resources here will help guide you.
Originated at the MIT Media Lab, Instructables is an Autodesk website that specializes in user-created and uploaded DIY projects ranging from 3D printing to gardening to robotics and more. Instructables is a community for people who like to make things and share their ideas and projects. For example, the Circuits category features step-by-step projects, including wearables, assistive technology, art, and Arduino; the Workshop category includes projects about 3D printing, energy, and science. Instructables also runs contests and hosts online classes featuring 3D printing, robotics, and wearable electronics. The Instructables Team recommends these projects for teens:
- Build a Motorized Dinosaur from Trash: Make a fun mechanical dinosaur with a few simple electronics and recycled plastic parts you can find around your house!
- Easy $5 Water Guns: As the summer heat starts to rise, learn some basic building skills while making your own custom water gun.
- Torus Drawing Machine: Build your very own drawing machine using common household materials and 3D printed parts that you can download or modify using Tinkercad.
- Sew Pajama Pants from a Pattern: Learn how to sew pajama pants from a pattern to upgrade your wardrobe with fabric.
- Musical Sneakers: Bring a little joy to your day and get some exercise with Arduino-based musical dancing shoes.
Founded by MIT engineer Limor Fried, Adafruit’s goal is to create the best place online for learning electronics and making the best-designed products for makers of all ages and skill levels. The site includes tutorials and guides to learning electronics, many ideas for projects, and YouTube video tutorials. Adafruit sells electronics products, electronics components, tools, and accessories, and also makes and sells unique and fun DIY electronics and kits. If you’re not sure where to start or just want to get some new ideas, their Shopping Guides are a great place to start. The guides are based on themes like IoT, Young Engineers, and Devices and Sensors. Founder Limor Fried suggested these projects for teens:
- Capacitive Touch Unicorn Horn: Make a magic costume unicorn horn that lights up with your touch.
- NeoPixel Infinity Cube: Build an Infinity Cube with NeoPixels.
- Automatic Cat Treat Dispenser: Train your cat to press a button and receive a reward.
Tinkercad is a powerful tool for young people to bring their ideas from mind to design in minutes. It is also free, easy to use, and browser-based – no need to download software. It works well on Chromebooks, and the Tinkercad iPad app includes an exciting new AR feature for unleashing your designs into the world around you. Within Tinkercad, there are three environments to explore: the 3D editor, Circuits, and Codeblocks.
In the 3D editor, students can create designs with a simple “drag and drop” of shapes. In the Circuits environment, you can learn simple circuits and even program an Arduino board. The newest editor, Codeblocks, uses the same type of blocks as Scratch, so that students can design a printable 3D model, or a GIF, that they made with code. Browse the Gallery to see what other tinkerers are creating. Kellyanne Mahoney, Youth Program Specialist at Tinkercad, thinks teens would enjoy these projects:
- 3D Printed Zipper Pulls: Making your own 3D printed custom zipper pull is a great way to stand out from the crowd. You can personalize almost any zippered garment or bag/backpack with your name and/or any shape.
- Easy Fingerboard: Skateboarding might be a fair-weather sport, but with a small scale fingerboard, you can be active inside all day long. Though these boards are 1:8 scale, they are 8x the fun!
- Reinvent the Shopping Cart: Use a kit of virtual materials provided by the Smithsonian Spark!Lab to learn how to think like an inventor, designer, and entrepreneur. No 3D printer required.
- Tinkercad Codeblocks: Learn how to make code you can touch through these fun Tinkercad Codeblocks challenges. Share your design by making an animated GIF!
- Blink an LED: This lesson is ideal for those new to electronics and does not require any physical electronics to complete it.
MakerBot’s Thingiverse is the world’s largest 3D printing community, widely used by the DIY and Maker communities. Here you can discover, learn, make, and share 3D printable designs and objects. Find hundreds of free lesson plans that offer step-by-step instructions that can be an option for learning independently.
SparkFun is an electronics retailer that sells all the parts you need to make your electronics projects. All products designed and produced by SparkFun are released as open-source hardware. In addition to over 2,000 components and widgets, SparkFun also offers classes and online tutorials designed to help educate individuals in the world of embedded electronics.
Hackster is a large developer community for learning, programming, and building hardware, with 1.3M+ members and 20K+ open-source projects. On the website, you can explore projects, videos, and on-demand workshops, take part in contests, and find events.
The Make: community is a leader in the maker movement, publishing a magazine, hosting Maker Faires around the country and a Maker Camp for kids, and featuring a projects website full of ideas, collaboration, and resources for DIY enthusiasts. Visit the website for inspiration, learning, and sharing of ideas and projects. The team at MAKE suggests these projects for teens:
- Alias Privacy “Parasite 2.0”: Add a layer of security to your home assistant.
- Build an Electronic Audio Game with a Pencil, Paper, and Conductive Ink: Build a simple sound-making circuit with an electric pencil stylus. Then draw with conductive ink pens to make and play electronic sound games.
- Construct a Fun, Powerful Rubber Band Crossbow: Using common household items, you can make a crossbow with paint sticks, clothespins, rubber bands, and straws.
The STEM projects described here are just a small sample of the multitude of ideas you’ll find by exploring these organizations’ websites. Dip in or dive deep—you and your DIY teen are bound to find something that’s intriguing and engaging!