20 Jul 2021 Experiments, STEAM / STEM

4 DIY STEM experiments you can do in 10 minutes

Want some STEM experiments to do at home but don’t fancy waiting around? Here are 4 activities you can get done in ten minutes so you can spend more time figuring out how it all works.

Impatience is a side effect of the online age so many of us, adults and children alike, start to get peeved when asked to wait. If you’re in the mood for some STEM investigation but find yourself struggling with your attention span, do we have the solution for you!

These 10 minute experiments can all be done with items you’ve got tucked away in the back of a cupboard, under some plant pots in the shed or wedged between a rusty bicycle and a long-forgotten vacuum cleaner box in your garage.

We’ll give you a quick and easy guide on how to do these fun, DIY experiments and break down the science behind them along the way too!

In this blog you’ll get a list of items you need and instructions. Of course, all experiments must be done with the help and supervision of a responsible adult.

1) Electromagnets

A home made electromagnet

That’s right, you can make a working electromagnet in under ten minutes! Electromagnets are used in the real world to generate power, move electric cars, make electric guitar pickups and produce new magnets themselves.

At home, you can make produce a strong magnetic field by passing a current through a copper wire wrapped around an iron nail- here’s how to do it.

What you need

What you need for a DIY electromagnet:
-Copper wire
-A battery
-Iron nails

If you don’t have them in, most of these items will be easy to find in a local hardware shop. For this experiment you won’t need a lot of copper wire so only buy a small reel of it.

You will also need a pair of sturdy scissors or pliers to cut the wire to size and, depending on the sort of wire you have, something abrasive like sandpaper.

Most importantly, get something for the magnet to pick up! Paper clips or staples are the perfect size for this experiment, they are often magnetic and very light.

How to make your magnet

First, take a length of copper wire (enough to wrap around your iron nail a few times). Using the edge of your scissors or sandpaper, rub the coating off the 2 cm at each end of the wire.

Then, wrap the wire around the nail as many times as you can, leaving the top and bottom free.

Tape the ends of your wire to the battery, then you should have your very own working electromagnet!

THE SAFETY BIT: the electromagnet can generate a lot of heat when switched on so you can’t have it on for too long. When it starts to get warm use something non-conductive, like a plastic pen, to remove the wire from the battery and wait for it to cool down before staring again.

How it works and what experiments can you do?

When electricity passes through the wound up copper wire it generates a magnetic field which, while the circuit is switched on, can be used like a regular magnet.

They are very useful in industry because, unlike normal magnets, they can be switched on and off and, depending on the voltage passed through the wire, can be made more or less magnetic.

To see if you can make your magnet better, test out different configurations. Try out these combos and see what happens:

  • Wrap the copper wire tighter or looser around the nail
  • Wind the copper wire more or less times
  • If you have one, try a longer or shorter nail
  • Try a bigger or smaller battery

Measure how powerful your magnet is by the number of paperclips or staples it can pick up.

2) Fire Extinguisher

Bicarbonate of soda and vinegar reaction in a jug

While we wouldn’t recommend chucking away your regular red one any time soon, you can make a carbon dioxide (CO2) fire extinguisher with the contents of a kitchen cupboard!

To see how it works, light a tea light candle and, after making your fire extinguisher, “pour” gas over it to put the fire out.

What you need

You’ll already have most of these in. If push comes to shove, you can use any other kind of candle.

Also, this could get a bit messy so have your kitchen roll handy.

How to make your fire extinguisher

Light your tealight and put it to one side. Then take your vinegar, bicarbonate of soda and jug.

Put a couple of tablespoons of the bicarb into the jug and pour on the vinegar. The mixture should start to react and fizz in seconds. It will start to bubble and maybe even overflow slightly.

Once it calms down, take the jug to your tealight and carefully tilt the jug without pouring any of the liquid out. Then, without anything visible emptying out, the fire will go out!

How it works

Fire burns in oxygen (O2), which is a flammable gas in the air we breath. CO2 isn’t flammable, so if the oxygen around the tealight is replaced by CO2 the fire will be “starved” and will go out.

Vinegar contains acetic acid, which reacts with sodium bicarbonate to produce carbonic acid. Carbonic acid isn’t very stable and quickly breaks down into CO2 and water.

CO2 is heavier than other gasses in air, so as you tilt the jug you literally pour invisible CO2 on top of the candle and extinguish the flame.

3) Bending Water

A running water tap

This trick, where it looks like you harness the power of nature and the laws of gravity, believe it or not takes one item and about 30 seconds of your time!

What you need

How to make water bend, you need a plastic comb, a water tap and a head of clean, dry hair

It really is that simple.

If we had to make it more complicated we’d suggest making sure your hair is clean and dry, as the experiment will work better.

How to bend the water

Run the tap to a small trickle of water. A thin stream of water works best as it’s easier to see the effect of the comb.

Take the comb and run it through your hair around ten times.

Then hold the comb just beside the water, close but not actually touching. The water should bend towards the comb. Have you gained supernatural abilities? Is the comb cursed? Not quite.

How it works

For a simple trick you can perform in seconds, there is a lot happening on the microscopic scale.

Your hair, like everything else around you, is made from atoms. An atom is made from 3 tiny particles- neutrons, protons and, orbiting around the outside of the centre, electrons.

Some electrons aren’t very stable while orbiting the rest of their atom and are collected by the comb. Electrons have a negative charge which, much like a magnet, will attract positive particles.

When water runs out of the tap it is actually positive, and the electrons within the comb are that negative that the two are attracted to each other. That’s why the water bends off course toward your comb.

And like that you’re an atomic scientist, using nothing but water and a comb!

4) Skittles Rainbow

Skittles rainbow on a plate

Let’s just put our impartiality hat on for a moment and say other glazed, sugary treats are available.

For a little lesson in the chemistry of absorption and dissolving there isn’t a more colourful way to do it than this.

What you need

For this DIY experiment you will need skittles, some water and a plate

The effect works best with a circular plate, though you could always experiment with a strangle shaped one. White ones also show the colours best.

This experiment works best with warm water, so maybe leave a jug of it out for a few moments to reach room temperature before starting this one.

How to make the rainbow effect

Simply line up the sweets around the edge of the plate, pick whatever pattern or combo of colours you like.

Once you’ve got them organised, take your water and pour just a little bit into the centre of the plate. Pour just enough to cover the sweets but not too much for it to overflow.

Now, just sit back and watch the colours of the skittles spread out toward the centre of the plate.

How it works

This neat little experiment covers many important concepts in chemistry including solubility and concentration.

The coating of each skittle is made of sugar and food colouring which are water soluble. This means they can dissolve in water to form a solution, where a substance can suspend itself in water.

Once in the water, the sugar and food colouring starts to move.

When something is dissolved in water, it moves from places where it is at a high concentration to low concentration until it is totally spread out. That’s why you can see the food colouring move all the way to the centre of the plate.

Moving from high to low concentrations is a major concept in all of science, it’s how sugars move into our cells during respiration and is the reason why chromatography works.

How did you do?

If you did any of these yourself why not send us your results to our Twitter or Facebook!