Share it! Science : January 2017

DIY Zoetrope Animation STEAM Project

This DIY zoetrope is the perfect STEAM project for kids who love art, science and engineering. You most likely have all of the supplies you need around the house, or can get them easily and inexpensively.

Have you ever played with a zoetrope? Zoetropes are simple devices that pre-date film animation. The viewer looks through the slits in a spinning cylinder and sees an animated image.

The device works on the principle that our brains are able to fill in the motion between frames. So as we view the image broken up by the dark spaces between the openings in the cylinder, the imagery is no longer blurry, and our brains perceive motion as the picture changes. It is an optical illusion referred to as persistence of vision. The name zoetrope comes from the Greek zoe and tropos, meaning "wheel of life". 

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You can engineer your own zoetrope. All you need is a circular base, a way to make it spin, a dark colored cylinder with small slits cut into it, and a strip of paper with sequential drawings. In addition to the design we created below, there are all sorts of design ideas available on the internet. We designed ours from what we had around the house.

To make the zoetrope I will describe here, you'll need the following:
First, you'll want to cut out your cylinder from the dark paper. We used the following dimensions, but you may want to experiment with other sizes depending on how you construct your zoetrope.

If you are working with a large group of students, or if you are short on time, you may want to grab the templates for the zoetrope here. I've found that with some groups the cutting and measuring bog down the joy of the project. For others, the specificity and engineering aspect is more fun.

Cut a strip of the dark paper 2.5 in (~ 6 cm) wide, and 17 in (~ 43 cm) long. You will have to tape together two different strips to get the length if you are using a standard size piece of paper.

Then using your ruler, measure out the slits. We made ours 1 in (2.5 cm)  apart and 1 in (2.5 cm) deep. Each slit was 1/8 in (~ 1/3 cm) wide. You can experiment with these dimensions to see how it changes the animation in your finished product!

Next, tape the strip of paper into a cylinder shape.

Poke a hole in the pie tin (or other container) with the pencil, or something pointy. Place the cylinder in the container. We used some tape to hold the cylinder in place.

Put the pencil through the hole and secure with tape if it is wobbly or loose.
Now comes the fun part! Draw yourself a cartoon on a strip of white paper. The paper should be no wider than the base of the cylinder. In other words, it should not obstruct the slits when placed in the zoetrope. In our case, no wider than 1.5 in (~ 3.5 cm). Templates for blank animation strips are included with the other zoetrope templates available here.

We started with a simple design of a stick figure wiggling back and forth. You can also print out zoetrope designs here.

When you are finished, roll up the cartoon strip and place it down into the cylinder. As you spin the pencil in your hands, look through the slits at the cartoon. Voila! Animation!

If you liked this project, and are looking for more ideas check out this patriotic twist on zoetrope animation for the 4th of July! 

Make a Thaumatrope

Kids can learn more about the science of vision and the concept of persistence of vision in my online class, "Toys that Trick the Eye". In the class we explore how our eyes work, check out some cool optical illusions and build another spinning toy- a thaumatrope, or "spinning wonder". Learn more about this class and view the current schedule here. You may also be able to enroll at a discount (or possibly free) with my coupon codes. Visit this page to see the current coupons. I'm looking forward to learning with your children!
learn science of the human eye build a thaumatrope STEAM education online class

This project is part of a larger series of engaging STEM projects and ideas. Check out the other posts here: The Best STEM Resources: An A-Z Guide for Exploring STEM.

Another cool way to explore the concept of persistence of vision!

Looking for more STEAM projects?

10 Clever Science Valentine's Cards

I love a good science joke, pun or cartoon, don't you? This Valentine's Day, check out these unique science themed Valentine's for your classmates, friends, science teacher or nerdy crush.

This post contains affiliate links, please see disclosures for more details. 

Click on the images to learn about purchasing these funny Valentine's cards. For an updated list (2024) of funny science Valentine's Day cards click here.

Famous Scientist Valentine's

Short on time? Download these and print at home!

Periodic Table Valentine's

Nothing says love like Lutetium and Vanadium!

Cats and Chemistry Puns!

For those of you who can't get enough online cat memes.

Solar System Love

Sweet on the Sun?


The basics of life and love.

Love in the Lab

Feeling the chemistry?

Kids Science! 

Play "I Spy" with this one.

For the Love of Rocks

In love with geology?

If Your Love is Electric

Nikola Tesla love.

For Your Symbiont

Do you have a symbiotic relationship?

For an updated list (2024) of funny science Valentine's Day cards click here.

Valentine's Day Möbius Strip Serpentine Poetry

When you can integrate multiple subjects your curriculum automatically becomes richer and students immediately benefit. We have a fun and challenging Valentine's Day activity for you that incorporates math and language arts. Your students or kids will have a blast with this STEAM activity.

We've been playing with the idea of Möbius strip hearts inspired by the latest STEAM Kids book, STEAM Kids Valentine's Day.  In addition to some fun holiday-inspired art and math, we're also adding a poetry challenge to our Möbius strip hearts.

This post contains affiliate links, see disclosures for more information. 

Valentine's day math and poetry lesson

The Math: What is a Möbius Strip?

A Möbius strip is formed when you cut a strip of paper, put one twist in it, and tape the ends together. Although the paper has two sides, in this configuration there is only one continuous surface. In other words, if you draw a line along the paper, you can get all the way around without picking up your pencil.

In mathematical terms, the strip has the property of being non-orientable. It was discovered in the mid-1800's by German mathematician August Ferdinand Möbius.

By David Benbennick (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons


Create a Valentine's Day Möbius Strip

These fascinating paper creations can be constructed at any point in the year, but creating hearts with them is a fun Valentine's Day twist (see what I did there?).

To learn how to create these heart versions, plus Valentine's rockets, jumbo crystal hearts and many other fun activities, check out the STEAM Kids Valentine's Day e-book.

For a quick tutorial, watch this video.

Integrate Language Arts

To add a bit of language arts to the mix, how about a poetry challenge? Just as the Möbius strip has one surface that goes around and around, how about creating some looping poetry?

Serpentine verse is a line of poetry that begins and ends with the same word.

Valentine's day mat and poetry lesson

Here is an example: "love is sharing Rocky Road, the only flavor of ice cream that I love"

Now, write it in a loop and you read: "love is sharing Rocky Road, the only flavor of ice cream that I love is sharing Rocky Road, the only flavor of ice cream that I love..." etc.

Challenge yourself to create a serpentine verse and include it on your Möbius strip heart. Can you write it on the strip before you twist and tape it, or only after?

More Valentine's Day STEAM

valentine's day STEAM projects

To find 13 other STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) activities with a Valentine's Day theme, check out the STEAM Kids Valentine's Day. It's available as an instant download e-book here. (Live in a VAT country? Get it here)

Want more STEAM? Download the STEAM Kids and STEAM Kids Valentine's Day book bundle for a discounted price on 66 creative projects for kids. That's the type of sweet treat I could go for on Valentine's day!

valentine's day STEAM projects

More Valentine's Day Science

Looking for science-themed Valentine's Day cards? Check these adorable and funny downloads are full of science jokes and puns. You and your kids or students will love them! Check out the list here.

Celebrate Valentine's Day by making a treat for our feathered friends. Easy Valentine's inspired DIY bird treats to hang by the feeder.

Integrating Technology in the Life Sciences

The life sciences have always been my favorite, as I think they are for many due to our innate affinity for other living things. As many schools turn to more of a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) focus rather than general science, we will need to adapt and improve our curriculum.

If you are a biology or other life science teacher, and are struggling to find ways to integrate different types of technology into your science curriculum, then you've come to the right place! In this post I'll explore some ways that technology can easily be incorporated into more traditional learning activities in the life sciences. I've organized the ideas by topic, and you'll find opportunities across different age groups in these sections.
How to Integrate Technology into Existing Science Curriculum

This post contains affiliate links, meaning I will receive a small commission (at no additional cost to you) if you make a purchase after clicking a product link. Please see disclosures page for more details.

Create a Digital Comic

Have students create digital comic strips with free Comic Life software to model biological processes such as meiosis and mitosis, or for the younger crew, life cycles such as metamorphosis. If you want a lower tech version, or an opportunity for students to map our their ideas on paper first, grab this paper template.

3-D Cell Models

Learning about animal and plant cells and the organelles that make up each is a standard unit in any biology course and even in many elementary and middle school classrooms. Students are asked to draw or create models of cells. Often these are made from candy. Rather than go the sugary route a colleague of mine has his students design a digital model that is then created in 3-dimensions using a 3-D printer.

Digital Cell Model Design 

Students evaluate their peer's designs for accuracy, proportions and proper inclusion of organelles. Like any modeling process, the students develop a deep understanding of the parts of the cell by having to recreate them, but this method also employs design and technology.

Student's 3-D Printed Cell Models

Although not everyone has access to a 3-D printer, there are makerspaces popping up all over the place where you can use one. Use this makerspace directory to find one near you. 3-D printers are also becoming more accessible and affordable. This popular mini printer is just under $200 and this da Vinci mini printer is under $300.

Digital Microscopes

Digital microscopes can be awesome tools to use to share magnified images of something minuscule with a large group via projector, or to save images of your micro-discoveries.

The reasonably priced, Zoomy handheld digital microscope is a great choice for kids, making it easier to get close up to whatever you're interested in. These microscopes plug into a computer via USB to download and magnify images.

Another useful digital microscope option is this inexpensive adapter that turns your smartphone into a digital microscope. A great tool for outdoor science lessons.

Biology Games and Simulations

There are many computer games and simulations that can embellish upon biology concepts.

Learn the functions of the different cell parts by playing CellCraft, a free game from Carolina Biological. In the game you'll travel into the cell to learn about the different organelles, and important molecules such as glucose and ATP all the while trying to keep the cell alive in a harsh environment.

Although in many ways they cannot replace the experience of a real dissection, there are now many options for virtual dissections. These are not only beneficial for economic and ethical reasons, but can also add an element of technology to a lesson. Investigate the traditional frog dissection virtually with this simulation from McGraw Hill Education. You'll find a college level virtual fetal pig dissection here and a long list of other virtual dissection opportunities here.

You'll find a slew of biology simulations from gene expression to natural selection at PhET simulations. My middle school students always enjoyed playing games on the National Science Foundation's Edheads site. You'll find a free DNA game here and a hip surgery simulation game here.

Turn Life Science Biology into STEM Curriculum

Digital Media and Simulations for Genetics 

Investigate this Smithsonian site from the exhibit Unlocking Life's Code that explores genomics. You'll find a talking glossary of genetic terms, and a huge media library of images, animations, videos and apps.

You'll find boatloads of digital resources for learning genetics here.  Use StarGenetics, a program developed by MIT faculty to virtually combine genetics of various organisms, such as cows, fish, flies, peas and even different smiley faces, virtually, to better understand traits. With the Classical Genetics Simulator, students can explore Mendelian genetics by simulating multiple generations of organisms without waiting weeks, months or years to see the resulting traits.

Tech for Studying Plants

Growing plants and learning about their needs is an activity that stretches across all age groups. You can collect data while plants grow by determining the type of light they are receiving with a light meter, monitoring the moisture of the soil with a low-tech moisture meter, or testing the soil pH with a pH meter.

If you have an ed-tech budget, you might be interested in purchasing a data logger. These are great tools that measure conditions like humidity, light or temperature over time that can then be downloaded and analyzed. Pop a data logger into a terrarium or other type of ecosystem model, measure conditions over time and compare your data to plant growth.

I visited a classroom that was using Aerogarden systems to study plants. These "smart" plant systems grow plants through advanced hydroponics. Although it doesn't teach in the same way as having a student become responsible for growing a plant themselves, in the right scenario something like this would be excellent for controlling experimental conditions.

If you're learning to identify plants outdoors, you might want to check out some of these free apps that serve as digital field guides. Although I love a traditional book version of a field guide, the benefit of using these is that several have options for submitting photos for identification or comparison, which can be a handy tool for young learners.

Explore plant identification and seasonal growth data through the citizen science project: Project BudBurst. There are tons of opportunities for learning here and lots of resources for educators.

Studying Wildlife

From adaptations to animal behavior, there is so much that can be learned by studying wildlife. However, it can be difficult to observe real animals in the classroom, aside from those that live in terrariums and aquariums.

One excellent way to bring animals into the classroom is by observing a wildlife camera. Learn more about the Raptor Resource Project's Bald Eagle camera here. You'll also find some excellent animal cams on the National Zoo's website.

Observe the tracks and sign of animals at home or in the school yard and then set up a wildlife cam to catch them in action. We have been snapping photos of birds with ours for years and absolutely love it. 

Study data like a wildlife biologist by observing and analyzing real animal migration data maps.  You'll find some excellent digital wildlife and nature maps to explore on this list from the National Wildlife Federation.

Students can participate in online citizen science projects like Penguin Watch and many others through Zooniverse.