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Wall Marble Run: Doing Fun Science at Home during School Closures (Activity #30)

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... building a crazy wall marble run from toilet paper tubes.

Student putting a marble into the top of a homemade marble run made from cardboard tubes

Digging into bigger STEM projects

Twelve weeks — that's how long it's been in my house since COVID-19 transmission forced schools to send kids home, businesses to close or shift to online operations, and our family to stop hanging out with friends in person. I never imagined it would go on this long!

I also never imagined we would get through so many STEM activities as a family during our COVID-19 quarantine. Today makes our 30th blog post in the Doing Science at Home series. To celebrate, I decided we would go big.

Most days, I'm not looking for a big STEM project. In fact, there have been many days when I was specifically looking for something small to fill a gap in our day. That is why I chose activities like observing a candle see-saw, making ice cream in a bag, and building a popsicle stick catapult. Other times, I opted for activities that were more involved, like making slime three ways, building a straw robot hand, and making our own kites .

While many of these more-involved activities can be made shorter or longer depending on the time and energy you have, with summer approaching and kids having lots of free time on their hands, I'd like to highlight some of the even-bigger STEM projects that are still left on my personal list. These are projects that take a couple of hours, and if your kids really get into it, these can easily turn into multiday adventures:

  • Build a Paper Roller Coaster: if you have paper, tape, scissors, a marble, and creativity, you can build a theme-park worthy marble roller coaster. Make a small one in an hour or turn it into mega project and see if you can make a really big one.
  • Build A Wall Marble Run: the limiting factors here are simply wall space and the number of toilet paper tubes you have available. This scalable project is great for including younger family members who love to build but don't have the dexterity for paper roller coasters.
  • Making Shadow Puppets explore light, shadows, storytelling, and art all in one fantastic activity. This is a project that can easily be packed away and set up again on a different day and added to over time with the creation of new puppets. This activity also has wide age appeal.
  • Make Cardboard Automata: while the materials are simple, the end product is impressive in this project. Building automata takes a willingness to tinker, but seeing your creation "come to life" is extremely satisfying. This activity is best for older kids or those with the patience to troubleshoot and try different solutions.
  • Build a Pizza Box Solar Oven: building your first solar oven doesn't take that long, but you may just find yourself hooked. There is plenty to explore through trial and error, including finding the right outdoor conditions and testing new recipes. The best part is that there is a tasty conclusion to this project!

My Pick of the Day: Wall Marble Run

With the luxury of a three-day weekend, but nowhere to go, this felt like the perfect time to tackle a bigger STEM project. I was looking for one that the whole family could get in on. For our family, that means something that works for my less patient second-grader and for my more tenacious seventh-grader. I thought the Build A Wall Marble Run activity would strike that balance.

As usual, we started off by watching the video:

Build A Wall Marble Run!

Since building a wall marble run has been on my to-do list for a while, we've been saving all the cardboard tubes from toilet paper and paper towel rolls. Although we've dipped into the cardboard tube stash a couple of times for activities like building a box guitar and making a cotton-ball launcher, we've managed to accumulate a good number, so we had plenty of materials to work with for our marble run!

My son was gracious enough to let his younger sister make the initial design on paper for the marble run. Her vision was to have three starting points, each at a different level, feed into a central chute that would lead to a single end point. With the design in hand, we were ready to dive in, but then the topic of decorating the tubes came up. After a bit of back and forth, we settled on using our art-deco patterned tapes in strips and stripes along the tubes.

Student cutting and taping cardboard tubes as part of a homemade marble run

Once all the tubes had been decorated, the building began. It took a little trial and error for the kids to figure out how to affix the tubes to the wall with painter's tape. Once they got the hang of it, things went quickly. They started off by placing the three entry points and then building each line towards a central point.

One of the things I was happy that they took to heart from the video was to test often. We often found that the placement of a tube needed to be tweaked so that the marble didn't jump out of the track or ricochet in an unexpected way. And we definitely made use of the backstop building technique shown in the video!

Two images showing taping cardboard tubes to the wall for the marble run and dropping a marble in to test

From start to finish, this project took us about two-and-a-half hours. Since then, the wall marble run has gotten additional usage as a toy, been the focal point for my second-grader's show-and-tell school video of the week, and been included in a video-call to grandparents. Definitely a success!

Student standing next to large marble run made from cardboard tubes and taped to a wall

If your kids build a marble run or tackle any of the other big STEM projects , 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.

The End of School Year STEM and the Beginning of Summer of STEM

I started this adventure nearly twelve weeks ago because I wanted my kids to continue experiencing hands-on science education even though they weren't physically in the classroom. As I said earlier, I never imagined that we would get through 30 activities! For us, the school year is starting to wind down, which means so is this particular STEM adventure. This will be my last Doing Science at Home blog piece for now. It won't, however, be the end of our family's STEM adventures!

Science Buddies will be sharing a free Summer of STEM starting June 1. Each week, we will post a fun summer theme with STEM activities, book recommendations, videos, and more. With local camps canceled, my two kids are looking forward to including the Summer of STEM in their school vacation plans. I invite your family to use the Summer of STEM resources, too. Feel free to pick and choose the parts that work best for you and your children.

We've also kicked our summer science suggestions off with a collection of STEM Activities for Storytelling. These five activities are an excellent complement to local summer reading programs.

Thank you for joining me over these last 30 weeks. Wherever your family STEM adventures take you, I hope you and your children enjoy the journey — I know we have.

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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