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Popsicle Stick Catapults: Doing Fun Science at Home during School Closures (Activity #22)

Follow along with a Science Buddies parent who is using family STEM activities to keep her kids learning at home during the COVID-19 school shutdown. New posts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Today's adventure... taking aim with a homemade popsicle stick catapult.

Example of a small catapult made from popsicle wooden sticks, rubber bands, and a recycled plastic lid. The catapult is holding a small aluminum foil ball.

Making Do with What You Have

Are you the kind of person who starts with the end product and then figures out the list of things you need to make that happen, or are you the kind of person who looks around at what you have and then uses that to inform the end product? The last two months have taught me that when it comes to cooking, crafts, and science activities, I tend to be the former. I like to decide what I'm making and then go gather the things I need — even if that involves a trip to the store. But that approach is not an option right now, so I'm getting better at making do with what we have at home.

What do we have at my house? Popsicle sticks (aka craft sticks) — we have lots and lots of popsicle sticks, which turns out to be great because they're quite handy for all sorts building and science projects. So, for today's STEM fun, I started with the fact that we have popsicle sticks and went hunting through the Science Buddies library of STEM activities for fun activities to do with popsicle sticks. Here are a few cool ones I found:

  • Popsicle Stick Chain Reaction: a carefully laid network of popsicle sticks results in an awesome display of kinetic energy as the sticks fly apart.
  • Build a Popsicle Stick Catapult: this small-but-mighty machine can send anything from pom-poms to toys to popcorn flying.
  • Design a Cell Phone Stand: need something to hold your phone while you video chat or watch YouTube videos? Build the perfect stand yourself.
  • Make Your Own Harmonica!: with a few well-placed sticks, rubber bands, and straws, you can make your very own simple musical instrument.
  • Design a Back Scratcher: got an itch right in the middle of your back? A popsicle stick contraption can solve that problem.

My Pick of the Day: Popsicle Stick Catapult

I confess, I was sorely tempted to choose the popsicle stick chain reaction activity. Check out the videoand you'll see why — it looks so cool! But, our floors are covered in a Lego village connected by wooden train tracks. Carving out space to set up the chain reaction would take more parenting energy than I have left. So, I chose the Build a Popsicle Stick Catapult activity.

As you may recall from our adventures with the cotton ball launcher and the toy parachutes , my daughter has a fondness for making things fly through the air. One run-through of the video for the popsicle catapult, and she was all in:

Popsicle Stick Catapult

The catapult itself is a quick and easy build. My second-grader chose to do the build along with the video, pausing as needed to give herself time to wrap the rubber bands.

Three photos showing student using rubbers bands to hold wooden popsicle sticks together during assembly of catapult

For the most part, she built all of it herself — the exception being slipping the second popsicle stick through the rubber band X. That move was the only one that needed a bit of parent assistance. Otherwise, she did it on her own, including using the glue gun to attach a recycled milk bottle cap (reclaimed from the wheels of her sail car ) as the bucket for her catapult.

Three photos showing steps of assembling popsicle stick catapult with rubber bands and then gluing on a recycled plastic lid to make the launch basket

Within ten minutes, she had the catapult built and ready to fling things. The exploration phase took much longer. She started by looking around for things to fling. We settled on a small toy bunny and some balls we made out of aluminum foil — another example of making do with what you have! I sat back and watched as she tried out her homemade launcher and occasionally tossed out prompts. "How far can you fling the bunny? Does it matter if you push down harder? Which travels farther, the bunny or the aluminum ball?" It didn't take her long to figure out that pushing harder on the catapult meant that things flew further, and the aluminum ball always traveled farther than the bunny.

Once she'd made her observations, it was time for my favorite question: "Why do you think that is?" Asking this question allows kids to stop, gather all their knowledge and observations, and then try synthesizing that information into an explanation. This is exactly what scientists do. It is perfectly fine if a child's answer isn't right — analyzing the available information and synthesizing an explanation is a skill one has to practice, and sometimes it requires knowledge they don't have yet.

Note: You can always lead kids to the scientific answer by asking leading questions. Or you can simply tell them the scientific explanation. (Your strategy might be a combination of these approaches based on how your kids react to not knowing and maybe to being wrong, where they are in their science education, and even how much time you have.) What is important is that you do spend a bit of time talking about the science that explains what happened in the activity. Science Buddies STEM activities always give you the expected results and the explanation behind them, so you don't need any prior knowledge. You can simply read the explanation together.

In my daughter's case, she had an intuitive understanding that pushing the catapult arm farther down made an object fly further because you gave it "more," but she lacked the vocabulary to explain more what. So, we talked a little bit about potential energy being stored in the bent popsicle sticks and being released as kinetic energy (motion). She also recognized that the aluminum ball flew farther because it was lighter (weighed less). I asked her to prove that the aluminum ball was lighter than the bunny. She immediately grabbed the kitchen scale from the counter, which we've used for other activities, and weighed both the ball and the bunny. She was right!

Photo of finished popsicle stick catapult with a small toy rabbit figurine in the basket and ready to launch

For an added bit of fun, we set up an empty berry basket as a target, and she spent another twenty minutes trying to launch objects into the basket. To make it easier for her to adjust her technique, we put some painter's tape down on the floor to make starting lines. She found this game highly entertaining!

More Fun with Catapults and Launchers

In sharing our cotton ball launcher adventure, I talked about other catapult and launch-style activities, and I noted that after the building is done, making a game of it, as we did with today's popsicle stick catapult, can be a really good way to extend the exploration. (You can easily highlight some core math principles with this approach, too.) For other catapult projects and activities your kids might enjoy in the future (or if they ever end up with a science fair project assignment), see 11 Launch and Catapult Science Projects.

If your kids make the popsicle stick catapult or try any of the other popsicle stick activities , we'd love to see. Post a picture of what they make on social media and tag us. You can find us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

If this blog post was useful to you, please share it with other parents. Follow the links below to see what other science adventures we've been having at home.

View All Posts in this Series

A science activity log is available as a Word document or as a Google doc for online convenience. (Just choose "File/Make a copy" to save it to your Google Drive.)

About the Author

Sandra, Science Buddies' Vice President of STEM education, holds a PhD in Genetics from Stanford University and has spent the last twelve years working on science education and STEM outreach. Right now, she's stuck working from her home in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, second grader, middle schooler, and two oddly noisy gerbils. She hypothesizes her sanity will hold as long as she gets a daily dose of sunshine.

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