In February, we featured a collection of some of our favorite STEM-focused books written by Black authors. One of my personal favorites is Whoosh!, which tells the story of Lonnie Johnson, the man who invented the Super Soaker. Growing up in the 90s meant summers full of water fights, and the Super Soaker was the BEST. I was so excited to find such a wonderfully written book all about the inventor and his challenges. It was also the perfect excuse to put STEM in Action by creating a kids engineering activity connected to the story. We recently featured this story during Wonder Hour, our STEM storytime, and we’d love for you to join in on the fun below wherever you are!

Step One : Interactive Read Aloud

Start off by chatting about the cover of the book - ask what they already know about inventors and if they’ve ever used a Super Soaker or Nerf gun before. Making these connections before reading helps to increase engagement! Once you’re ready, dive into the book, making sure everyone has a good view of the fun pictures. 

We’d love to share a few talking tips for Whoosh!, if you’d like to use them to guide your reading. (A quick pro tip - view these more as suggestions, rather than things you must get to. It’s much better to let the conversation flow naturally!)

  • Think about some words you could use to describe Lonnie’s personality, such as determined and focused. Where are some examples of these traits in the text?
  • Talk about the journey Lonnie had during his young adulthood. What connections can you make to similar journeys/challenges faces by other characters from books, movies or TV?
  • Think about the inventions Lonnie creates throughout his career - what do they all have in common? What are some of the inventions that we still use today? Do we have any of them in our house?
  • How would you describe Lonnie’s attitude towards facing challenges? How did that help him to be successful in the future?

Side note - We know that getting a hard copy of a book can sometimes be tricky! So here is a link to a version on YouTube - not quite the same as reading the story from the book, but helpful if you’re in a pinch :) 

Step Two : What's the STEM Challenge?

Once you’ve read the story, it’s time to get busy with a STEM Challenge! Remind your kiddos of the types of inventions Lonnie made and how he had to work hard to be successful. Today, their challenge is to build a launcher that will send an object a distance. Sounds pretty simple right?! Well to start, we’ll show you how to create a basic balloon launcher. From there, you can think about what changes or additions you might want to make to your launcher totally unique

  1. Gather all of your materials : Balloon (12in or larger), paper cup (we used 8oz cups), scissors, tape, something to launch, such as a ping pong ball, cotton ball, or mini eraser.
  2. Prep the Cup : Carefully cup the bottom section out of each paper cup (this is definitely a grownup’s job!)
  3. Prep the Balloon : Tie the end of the balloon so it’s secure. Then, snip the top ½ in off the top of the balloon so it looks like the picture below.
  4. Build your Launcher : Slide the open end of the balloon around the bottom of the cup so the opening is completely covered. Secure the balloon with a piece of tape that stretches all the way around the balloon to be sure there isn’t any leaking air.
  5. Launch! Grab whatever you are choosing to launch and test it out. Set the object inside the cup and pull back gently on the balloon and release.

You can see a step-by-step demo of how to do this on our Instagram story highlights!

Step Three : Time to Get Creative!

Once your basic model is complete, it’s time to get those creative juices flowing! Lonnie decided his launcher was going to send water shooting across the room - what is your launcher’s job going to be? Check out a few ideas from kids at a recent Wonder Hour STEM storytime.

This part of the STEM in Action activity can start to feel chaotic, but don’t worry! Check-in frequently and point out specific examples of the 4Cs during this kids engineering challenge. We like to use a technique called “notice and narrate” where you simply state everything you are seeing as it’s happening. This helps kids to process their actions and think through choices. It’s important to acknowledge challenges as they arise, and talk through possible solutions. Encourage finding more than one right answer - testing out many ideas is something that all scientists do.

Step Four : Wrap Up + Celebrate

It’s important to take a moment to debrief an activity like this, even if you’re at home. Take a few minutes to let your kiddos share what they made and tell more about what their invention does. Take a picture of it or send it to a friend/family member - having an audience to share your learning with is important! And see if you can make a connection back to Lonnie Johnson -  a fantastic inventor who worked hard to create a cherished summer toy. And most importantly, give your kids (and yourself!) a big high-five for taking the time to put STEM in Action!

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