STEM Activities for Kids: How strong is a piece of paper?

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We love fun and easy STEM (Science, Technology Engineering and Math) activities.

This engineering challenge activity can be done by young kids and older kids alike and uses what you already have on hand–no need to buy any supplies.

We are going to test the strength of paper, folded in differently  shaped columns, by piling books on top. This is very similar to how columns are used to support buildings and other structures.

STEM activities for kids

Triangle, square and circle. Which paper is the strongest?

 Watch this video to see how we conducted our STEM challenge and what the results were. 

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The Science Behind It

The cylinder can support the most books because it’s walls don’t have any edges. The force of the books cannot become concentrated in a particular area. The load is distributed evenly. In other words, all parts of the cylinder are sharing the load of the books.  All parts of the cylinder, therefore, contribute to it’s overall strength until, finally, it collapses.

The square and triangle deform more easily.  They shift the weight of the books to their edges and corners, which deforms their walls and leads to a quick collapse.  They are unable to carry weight only at their edges.  

Have you noticed columns in buildings and other structures, like parking garages? What shape are the columns? Are they on the inside of the building/structure to serve their practical purpose of supporting beams or arches? Or are they exterior columns which lend support but also beauty to the structure?

Early architects in several ancient civilizations used columns in architecture including the ancient Egyptians, Persians, Greeks and Romans.

We used this LEGO kit  to demonstrate both interior and exterior columns in architecture.

Challenge Instructions

  • Use regular copy paper, not card stock for this challenge.
  • Fold each paper into the three shapes and secure with tape.
  • Slowly pile books on top of each shape.

stem activities for kids

How many books can you pile on top of each shape? We did this experiment three times and got three different results, although the cylinder always bore the weight of three to four times the amount of books as the square or triangle. 

We were inspired to do this experiment by  Janice VanCleave’s 200 Gooey, Slippery, Slimy, Weird and Fun Experiments.
Janice Van Cleave's Gooey, Slippery, Slimy, Weird and Fun Experiments


More fun STEM activities for kids: 

 Math Activities for Kids | Creekside Learning


science experiments for kids



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